Anglican Samizdat

April 20, 2009

The elderly in a civilised society: do we treat them as human?

Filed under: The fall of the West — David Jenkins @ 1:31 pm

My father-in-law, John, is 86 years old, can no longer walk, has largely lost control of his bodily functions and suffers from chronic arthritis. He also suffers from dementia so, although we can still recognise the person that we once knew within his disintegrating body, much of the time he does not know who we are. He has lost some of his ability to use language so  only half the words he uses are recognisable; a part of him realises this and he becomes very frustrated at his inability to communicate.

His dementia can appear comical: he often phones us at 6:00 a.m. to tell us he can’t find his left toe. He regaled me a few months ago with the tale of how, yesterday, he had been in a plane crash and had smashed one of the windows to help people out of the burning aircraft onto the wing and then to safety.

His heart is strong and his blood pressure is enviably low so he could live for years; in his cogent moments he questions why he is still alive. A man who led a productive life, built houses, ran a business, helped others, was a loving husband and father reduced to an immobile shell that has to wear diapers.

The question is, is his life worth any less than yours or mine? The fact that he is still alive and that he is created in God’s image tells me that his life is worth as much as anyone’s. And this is why he and others like him must be treated with the dignity due to an image bearer of the Divine.

He is presently in a nursing home, Northridge Long Term Care. This is my first encounter with a nursing home and its nightmarish Kafkaesque administration. In the last week we have seen the following:

My father-in-law has to be lifted from his bed to his wheelchair with a hoist operated by 2 people; in the process of moving him to his chair, his hand became jammed between the chair and the bed. It became swollen but was not treated by a doctor; we were not informed of the accident.

Although my wife visits her father every couple of days, she has also hired a private care worker to sit with him, talk to him and take him to activities. A few days ago, we had a call from the private care worker to tell us that John was experiencing tremors and was unresponsive. There was no call from the nursing home; phone calls to the nursing home’s administration yielded an answering machine; calls were not returned. My wife drove to the nursing home to find out what had happened. The nurse in charge informed my wife that, at lunch, the activities coordinator could not find a pulse in her father, so he took John to the nursing station and they took him back to his room. At this point he was unresponsive and shaking; my wife asked for a doctor; the nurse in charge did not page the doctor (the Director of Care later told us that there isn’t much point, since he doesn’t usually respond). Florence Nightingale then informed my wife that there “did seem to be something wrong”. An ambulance was called and he was taken to the hospital; tests ended up showing that he had a high temperature and was suffering from a fever; the nursing staff at Northridge had assured my wife that he had a normal temperature.

After this little adventure, John, returned to the nursing home. Northridge, who by now are a little twitchy about calling us, phoned to say John had fallen out of bed. After my wife went to investigate, the Director of Care declared that he had “climbed over the bed railing”. The absurdity of this is fairly apparent since John can’t even sit up on his own: someone had forgotten to put the bed rail up. In falling out of bed, John had injured his leg; the injury had not been treated. While my wife was there, John expressed a need to have a bowel movement – this takes a hoist and 2 people; my wife informed the staff who said they “would be right there”. After 20 minutes, no-one had appeared. To make matters worse, the staff has complained that John often soils himself.

Many of the workers at Northridge are decent, caring and hard-working; nevertheless, there are not enough workers and the administration appears bungling and indifferent.

John has a family who love him and are prepared to do what it takes to make sure he gets decent care. Many in Northridge cannot move or speak and have no-one to stand up for them: God help them.

Our elderly deserve better.



  1. David, There is a wide range of quality when it comes to nursing homes. Fortunately, my siblings and I had some time to research nursing homes for my mother and were able to have her placed in a good one in suburban Vancouver. (She spent the last few years of her life there before passing away in December 2004.) It wasn’t the swankiest home available, but the staff there provided consistently excellent care. Other homes were not so good, according to information we received.

    It’s good that you have also hired a private care worker. I’ll pray for your father-in-law.

    Comment by Scott Gilbreath — April 20, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

  2. Thanks, Scott.

    Comment by David — April 20, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

  3. Reports like this make me weep. Nursing care – ha! There are some terrific nurses out there, as well as health care aides, but outdated funding formulas, hiring practices and training are contributing to a national disaster in our elder care homes. And yes, I’ve worked in a few, so I know whereof I speak. If you have family members in ANY kind of vulnerable situation (group homes, nursing homes, etc.), don’t be afraid to pester the senior staff, management and ministries of health in order to demand the best care possible. Abuse of those who are vulnerable depends on apathy and ignorance – shining a light on this and doing everything you can to fight for your loved ones will effect change, not only for them but for those who will follow.

    Comment by NLees — April 22, 2009 @ 11:26 am

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