Deborah Coddington

Deborah Coddington is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Deborah Coddington: We need to take blinkers off to give elderly a fair go

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By 2032, one in 20 people will have dementia. Photo  / APN
By 2032, one in 20 people will have dementia. Photo / APN

The Prime Minister was wrong: Winston Peters' voters aren't dying off. Old people are living longer and the next generation has a big problem.

In 2006, only 133,800 people were aged over 65. Statistics NZ predicts by 2031 that figure will jump to 320,000. A major report by Grant Thornton identifies dementia as the "highest demand" in that age group, and by 2026 we'll need up to 37,000 more rest-home beds.

My parents, in general, didn't have to look after their mums and dads in their dotage. They just died. I, too, thought I'd get a phone call with similar bad news, but now I'm responsible for an old and dementia-ridden parent.

So the past two years have been a lesson in my generation's somewhat blinkered policy on aged residential care.

None of us wants to go to the land of old age, cast on a La-Z-Boy totally dependent on somebody to spoon food into our mouth, wearing pull-ups, air freshener in the room to disguise the smell of our poos and wees.

We might have a few wisps of hair left on our heads and, when visitors come, they touch our claw-like hands, covered with parchment skin.

If we're lucky, like my Mum, we'll be in a nice home, hospital or dementia facility, with caring, well-trained staff who don't patronise us, and make an effort to know about our lives so they can have a conversation, even if it is only one way.

By 2032, one in 20 people will have dementia and people are good at disguising dementia in its early stages (like my mother). Then when it's advanced, help is needed quickly.

And, despite misconceptions, most rest homes these days have changed from the institutions of old. Residents take their own furniture, hang pictures and family photos on the walls. There's usually a residential cat and visiting dogs for therapy; an activities co-ordinator tries to keep minds active. Happy hour encourages a light tipple.

But it's a million miles from the lucrative lifestyle villages advertised in the property section of your weekend newspaper. There are no profits in high-needs hospital care for the old and senile.

That's why no one wants to face the fact that by 2026 we'll need a 78-110 per cent increase in residential care beds. Will the Government bite the bullet and supply? Can we rethink community pensioner housing and healthier lifestyles, so fewer end up bedridden in these places?

Meanwhile, you just try getting your parents past the gatekeepers into a room (if you can find one available).

Inconveniently for the DHB bureaucrats, my mother fell and broke her shoulder during the Christmas/New Year holidays and, because she could no longer feed, bathe, move - in fact, do anything for herself - she had to be moved to residential care with hospital facilities.

We pay privately for her residential care but she had to be assessed before the transfer, to approve state funding for the nursing care top-up. (Even if you pay privately, residents still must be assessed by the DHB if they want to go into a home, and can be refused if the assessor thinks they're "fit enough" to manage independently).

For the second time in three years, an assessor asked me questions and mother scored 19 out of 23 - a pass for hospital care. She couldn't talk, eat much, toilet, walk, sit up, recognise family, and was on morphine for pain. What condition qualified a score of 23, I wondered? Dead?

Different DHBs have different policies. They can do what they like with their budgets despite the fact, according to Age Concern, the four main concerns for all old people are abuse/neglect, social isolation, income/health, and "other".

Last year it was reported suicides of lonely old people reached a 10-year high but then, the elderly population was also the highest. Nonetheless, when old people stop eating and drinking, there's nothing anyone can do. It's their life - or death - to control.

But isn't the best antidote to loneliness family and friends?

I'm not sure if Mum knows who I am any more, but that's not the point of my visits, three days a week with flowers and pretty pictures. I still know who she is.

- Herald on Sunday

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