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For too long, we've denied the elderly their dignity. If we wish to be counted as civilised, this betrayal MUST end
01:03 GMT, 26 December 2012
Something is frighteningly wrong with this country’s attitude towards the aged. Our later years should be a time of respect, security and comfort. Yet today’s society does not endow the elderly with dignity.
We have seen horrific stories emerge this year, of so-called ‘care pathways’ to hasten death in hospitals, and sickening abuses in places that we label ‘care homes’ when in fact they don’t care and aren’t homes.
Only in the past few days we have learned that a hospital trust paid out more than 400,000 in compensation and issued dozens of apologies over a catalogue of neglect. The cases included one 84-year-old man who was allowed to starve to death.
These are the worst cases — but they are only the visible tip of a much broader problem. We have an ageing population, where more and more people are living into their 80s and beyond. Our society is not geared to cope with that.
In the past 25 to 30 years, the trend has been to put old folk in a home and say goodbye to them. They’re just left there to stare out of windows.
Where’s the dignity in that
Tough: People from disparate backgrounds who are shoved into a care home can find it difficult to make relationships (file picture)
My new film, Quartet (which opens on New Year’s Day), explores this problem and, I hope, offers some kind of a solution. It has a spellbinding cast — Dame Maggie Smith, Sir Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly — who play four old opera singers in a retirement home.
The home is called Beecham House. It was inspired by the great conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham. And that’s the clue: what makes this place special is that all the residents have been professional musicians.
This is the binding factor. They have a career, a passion, a life in common.
Otherwise, when people from disparate backgrounds are shoved into a care home, it’s difficult for them to make relationships. They can’t find things to talk about or do, because they’ve had such different lives — whereas in a home of musicians (or actors, teachers, nurses) they have a great many shared experiences.
The film owes much to the 19th-century Italian composer Verdi and the house in Milan (Casa Verdi) where he lived and is now buried. He bequeathed the property as a care home for aged opera singers.
To this day, the residents are still former opera singers or musicians and it is a wonderful place to retire. The great joy is that people there are living with like-minded colleagues, and they are treated not as objects but as human beings with something valuable to offer.
Of course, every family is different and it is hard to make the right choice. What’s worrying is that those choices seem to get harder — and more costly — with every passing year.
It certainly makes no sense that so many older people feel forced to sell off their homes in order to raise money to pay for residential care facilities.
For many years, politicians from all parties have ducked the issue of how we should pay for long-term social care costs.
Currently, the system makes those with assets of 23,250 or more pay for residential care — thereby depriving their children of their inheritance.
Worries: Billy Connolly (pictured with Sheridan Smith at a screening of Quartet in London earlier this month), plays randy old baritone Wilfred in the film and is also deeply concerned about the future of the elderly
It is now reported that the Coalition government is set to overhaul its care policies by restricting the most an individual pays towards their care to 60,000 or even 75,000. But even this cap, although welcome, is likely to wipe out or exceed most people’s savings.
In any case, I believe it would be much better to use that money to pay for care at home, with relatives, rather than in an institution run by strangers.
Part of the problem of how to fund the care of an increasingly elderly population lies in the disintegration of the traditional family structure over the past half-century.
Although my parents had an unhappy relationship, I am a great believer in marriage.
My wife, Natasha, and I have been married for 53 years and I am convinced that marriage and families are the basis of a stable society.
Billy Connolly, who plays randy old baritone Wilfred in the film, is also deeply concerned about the future of the elderly.
He has said: ‘There seems to be a trend for children to dump their parents in these places [care homes] and pay for them by selling their homes.
‘It’s wrong. Wherever possible, the parents should be kept in their own homes and looked after by their own family.’
For his part, Billy says he never thought of himself as old until he turned 70 last month.
I know what he means. I am now 78 but mentally I feel no different from when I was 17. I just want to be treated as I have always been treated. My hair might be grey, but other people see it, I don’t.
What particularly worries me is the idea, so prevalent in many walks of life, that anyone with grey hair has their best days behind them, that they have nothing left to contribute.
This wasn’t always the attitude. When I was struggling for recognition as a writer, a friend advised me: ‘Don’t ask for too much too soon.’
Still writing: Crime writer P.D. James said: 'If people don't think about death when they're 90, there must be something wrong with them'
These were wise words. I had to wait until I was 46 before my first major success when I wrote The Dresser. In 2003, aged 68, I won an Oscar for The Pianist. Indeed, all the high points of my career have come late.
In one of my favourite lines in my new film, Maggie Smith’s character says: ‘You must understand, I was somebody once.’
And Pauline Collins replies: ‘I thought I was somebody now!’
Dustin Hoffman, who has directed Quartet, is another example of the value in respecting the older generations and of the madness of writing people off just because of the date on their birth certificate.
Yes, he has been a famous film star ever since he appeared in The Graduate in the Sixties. Yet, now, aged 75, he is making his debut behind the camera. The truth is that talented people can always surprise themselves by attempting new things and learning more, as well as by teaching and passing on their knowledge.
So I pay no attention to old age, though unfortunately it has been paying attention to me.
I have arthritis in one ankle, from playing tennis, and sometimes that slows me down. When I get up from a chair, and people can see I am having difficulty, they want to help me. But I hate being helped!
Earlier this year, I was felled by double pneumonia. When you regain consciousness after such a collapse and one of your children is feeding you, that really brings it home: you’re not going to live for ever.
It was the first time I had ever had to confront my own mortality.
That brush with death instilled a tremendous determination that, whatever time I have left, I will make real use of it. I’ll make it count.
Of course, old age must be faced. If you try to escape the inevitable, you’re escaping reality. Anyway, it’s natural to think about dying.
I remember something that crime writer P. D. James said: ‘If people don’t think about death when they’re 90, there must be something wrong with them.’ She should know — she’s 92, and still writing.
As a playwright, I’ve got an active imagination, so I have imagined retiring to a care home myself.
Fortunately, my children won’t hear of it.
One of our daughters suggested that my wife and I could sell up in London, move to the country and have a granny flat in a family house where we could all be together.
It’s a tempting idea, and we’re grateful that our children want to do it — but for the time being, we’ll stay put.
As for those who do go into care homes, we must all fight to ensure that they are treated with respect, dignity and compassion — and that they, and their families, are not forced to pay an unacceptable financial price.
If ours is to be considered a civilised society, this is a challenge that must be met.