older people ward

When did older people become house plants?

(How the hospital fixed her body and almost broke her mind)

Meet Helen. 

My mother-in-law Helen (not her real name) who is 85 years old, active, sharp-minded, quick-witted and enjoys life and her family. She has travelled to different parts of the world but in her opinion, no place is as beautiful as the UK. Give her the chance to drive around the UK with her daughter and I, and you don’t have to ask twice. Helen lives in her own house, looks after herself and does what most of us do, cook, clean and all the other daily chores one does in a home. She does not need assistance, goes and does whatever she wants, whenever she wants, independently. This is the woman I know, but until recently a short stay in a Liverpool hospital almost changed that. 

An Unfortunate Trip

In May 2019 Helen walked to the grocery store and on her way back, tripped, fell and broke her hip in two places. She underwent surgery and was recovering in hospital. My wife went up to Liverpool from Hampshire to spend time with her as did her daughter from Surrey and her son came from France. The surgery went well and her recovery was going well, but she was getting very anxious about staying in hospital longer than necessary. One visit was all I needed to understand her desperate need to leave.

They are people, not plants. 

This was my first visit to a hospital ward with just older people and my immediate thought was ‘this place reeks of death”. It was just depressing to be there. A lack of stimulation, colour, energy and hope. There were 6 occupied beds and a tv on the wall at the end of the room, The tv was blaring BBC but no one was listening, after all, they cannot really watch it based on the location, it gets turned on in the morning and stays on for background noise until bedtime, kind of like putting music on to help your plants grow. There is really no place for personal items like family photos or personal mementoes that is easy to see while lying in bed passing the time away. Visiting time starts at noon, for some, they only see familiar faces when family members and friends get off work. For most of the time, there is nothing to do, nothing interesting to see, little engagement except for members of staff carrying out their duties and the only company they have is mind-numbing boredom. 

Hospital making older people worse. 

I met the daughter and husband of the woman in the bed next to and Helen and they explained that their loved one, was a vibrant woman, who rarely spent a week each month in the UK as she enjoyed travelling and exploring. She developed an infection 12 months before and was initially placed in a room where the other occupants had dementia and could not communicate with her. As a result, she stopped talking and feeding herself. Now after moving to this room and thanks to Helen who speaks to her each day, she is now communicating and trying to feed herself to their relief. She was almost killed by the same people caring for her by giving her regular pasta when above her bed in large letters it says, No Gluten. If not for her daughter walking at that very moment and pointing out that her mother is celiac, she might not have recovered in her fragile state. 

Duty of Care

Hospitals are there to make people better, recover from illness and go home in a better state of health than when they entered. There is a duty of care to look after older people both physically and mentally and I would argue that mental health is just as important as physical health. 

I was in the hospital for 4 days a few years ago for back surgery, the room was private and even with my own TV and crappy daytime television program, I was bored out of my mind in a day. Thanks to my laptop, access to movies and my favourite tv shows online, audio and virtual books and of course music I had enough distraction to keep my mind active.  

Helen was in the hospital for four weeks and was crawling the wall to get home, I think deep down her fear was, she would never leave. She stayed in the hospital a week longer than necessary because the local council could not put the home care package together, sooner. It’s no wonder there are not enough hospital beds. A couple of days before she was to go home Helen was starting to get hysterical and just wanted to leave.


According to the General Medical Council’s website; ‘Older patients don’t want to be treated differently because of their age. They want to be treated as individuals, feel they are being listened to, have the opportunity to ask questions and have access to the information and support they need to make their own decisions’.

According to Helen, the nurse comes onto the ward around 6 am and puts the TV on. No one asks if they want it on or what channel they prefer. I’ve never been to a children’s ward, but I’d be surprised if it looks this bland and lacked any stimulation. So they are not being listened to and are being treated differently. 

The bible say’s ‘For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’ I say “For what does it profit a person if they should gain back their physical health but lose their mind’.

I don’t know if it’s money, lack of will, or simply that our society sees older people as having one foot in the grave, so what’s the point in making the effort to stimulate their minds. We hear that the cost to the NHS for treating dementia is increasing, but as in this case, if Helen had to spend more time recovering in this mind-numbing environment,  I have no doubt, she would become another dementia statistic. 

Helen is back home now, recovering nicely and fast. She can make her own tea or sandwich is on her way back to her old self. She praises the doctors and nurses, saying they were fantastic. 

Clearly, they’ve don’t their job, I call on the government to do theirs.