Recently the BBC ran a story that over 75’s are responsible for 57% of physical assaults on NHS staff in hospitals. These assaults range from biting and pinching through to some of the most serious attacks that are recorded. In trying to explain why these incidents are happening, the stress and confusion that a hospital stay can cause were highlighted, and patients who are living with the effects of dementia were inevitably mentioned.
Sadly, I think many people reading the headline and acknowledging that dementia is mentioned will, yet again, assume that all people with dementia are violent. Little consideration will be given to how hospital environments contributed to the circumstances around these incidents, or indeed how the lack of comprehensive staff training or appropriate staffing numbers did likewise.
What also won’t be examined is how many people were avoidably in hospital in the first place, or who had remained there for far too long when not clinically necessary because of failings in the availability, organisation or funding of social care places. It’s just quick and simple to look at older people and say: “They are violent because they have dementia and are attacking the people trying to care for them.”
What has to be understood is that people with all different dispositions and from all walks of life develop dementia. If you were an unpleasant person with a quick temper and a tendency to be violent prior to developing dementia, your dementia may or may not make those character traits more pronounced.
Likewise, for some people who were mild-mannered and never hurt anyone, the development of dementia can lead to symptoms such as paranoia, hallucinations, disorientation, confusion and anxiety that can result in a person lashing out without realising they are or without intending to. It is simply their reaction to what they are experiencing in that moment, allied with the circumstances (environment, staffing etc) that they are in the midst of.
Delirium and other mental health problems that either haven’t been diagnosed or aren’t being well treated can also contribute, not to mention the side-effects of a medication, poly-pharmacy or indeed something as simple as a urinary tract infection, being hungry or tired – do not underestimate the effect of sleep deprivation. A person may also feel angry, ashamed or undignified if they aren’t being supported to wash, use the toilet or be mobile in the way they would want to be, resulting in feeling uncomfortable or becoming incontinent or immobile.
I am not in any way making excuses for violence against NHS staff, nor would I ever condone it, but before we brand older people as violent patients I think we need to understand how being a hospital patient can make you feel.
Last year I spent one night in hospital following the birth of our daughter. All the care I received was wonderful and the staff were very kind and helpful to me. But I didn’t sleep a wink. Nor did I particularly like the food. I definitely wanted to lock the bathroom door when I went for a shower, and ideally would have preferred to keep the curtains around my bed closed, but because we all had to be in view of the staff so we could be monitored, that wasn’t possible except for breastfeeding or getting dressed.
Granted, I had just had a baby and hormones were going wild, but fundamentally I was a knowledgeable, articulate person who could speak up for myself and wasn’t in danger of having to stay in hospital any longer than was absolutely necessary. Yet I felt vulnerable. And if I can feel vulnerable, then I can only imagine how an older person, potentially with reduced communication abilities due to their health, might feel.
I have written before about how undiagnosed pain in a person with dementia can affect that person. I’ve also written about unmet needs being misunderstood as ‘challenging behaviour’ (a phrase I hate), and about the effects of illness, incontinence, hunger, dehydration and sleep problems. I’ve also addressed the shortcomings in hospital environments for older people in comparison to the environments we offer children.
All of these issues can easily converge and result in avoidable incidents. Aggression is so strongly linked to dementia that I meet people who are surprised if their loved one isn’t aggressive. Yet there is so much that can be done through person-centred care, occupation, reablement/rehabilitative support and life-story work to support people with dementia to cope with their symptoms.
Whilst the BBC based their story on firm evidence, with figures obtained from NHS Protect (the organisation dealing with crime across the health service), I suspect that many people simply won’t see beyond the statistics and examine the real issues, let alone tackle them. As a result fear of having contact with older people and people who have dementia proliferates. With such ostracisation comes isolation, and an even greater chance of people who are already feeling misunderstood reacting to that in ways that hurt them every bit as much as those trying to provide care and support for them.
Understanding about dementia has improved over the years, but it isn’t where it needs to be to provide appropriate, individualised support for every person. Geriatrics isn’t an area of medicine that is oversubscribed with our brightest and best professionals in the way paediatrics might be considered to be, and ageing within our society still isn’t universally viewed with dignity, respect or compassion. Often older people’s services are underfunded, stretched to capacity (and beyond) and seen as little more than a ‘dumping ground’ for people viewed as adult babies and stripped of their identity.
We are long overdue a complete re-evaluation of how we care for older people in hospital, including the need to even be in hospital to begin with, and an honest stock-take on how circumstances (many of which we can control) result in incidents that are then beyond anyone’s control, least of all the patients at the centre of them. As in all areas of healthcare, prevention is always better than cure.
Until next time…