And not spend my final days in hospital if this report is anything to go by. I’ve often thought that it would be a pretty shitty way to end your life – in a hospital ward, your last ocular experience being the smell of hospital tapioca. My mother spent her last night deep in a coma, with the fire alarm going off every ten minutes.
Perhaps it would be better to be hit by a bus than to literally lie in your own shit, hungry, thirsty and afraid to ask for help. It sounds so melodramatic doesn’t it – almost Dickensian. But apparently that’s what’s happening in some of our hospitals. And fair enough, none of us want to look at it too closely because that might be us in twenty, thirty, forty years time.
One memory. Going into hospital to see mum and smelling that terrible institutional food. Reminding me of school dinners. You know how supermarkets pump out a chemical smell that tickles you nose seductively and makes you think of fresh baked bread? Even though you’re telling yourself it’s a chemical – it still smells sexy. Well every single hospital I’ve ever been into has that horrible food smell. Is that a chemical?
I couldn’t believe that it was possible a person could starve on an NHS ward. Well it was a hot afternoon and there were six beds on mum’s ward. Lunchtime. We had asked and asked that mum was encouraged to eat. I watched as a tired, dead eyed orderly stopped off at mum’s bed and said: ‘Do you want lunch?’ Mum said nothing – she was unable to speak apart from rattling off little fragments of speech from her memory. The orderly started to move on. I stopped him and took some food off the trolley. Later on the doctor told me that the orderly knew that all patients on that ward were to be encouraged to eat. I got very used to hearing what the policy was. Everyone knew what the policy was and could quote it verbatim. It didn’t mean the policy was being carried out though. We asked dad to come in every day at lunchtime to make sure she had at least one proper meal. She had a chart which I kicked up a huge fuss about and asked for it to be filled in every day. Then I realised that filling in the chart didn’t mean squat. One spoonful of weetabix and half a piece of toast. I wondered if it was all made up because mum was losing weight at terrifying speed.
In another corner of the ward an elderly man lay, eyes bright in a sunken face, mouth wide open like a baby bird. His (hideous) meal was lying untouched on his tray. Nobody was feeding him and he was unable to move or speak, much less sit up and feed himself. Sometimes I fed him. He ate hungrily. Then the orderly took the tray away. I can’t remember anyone else coming to see him. But every day the orderly brought food and then took it away again. I spoke to a nurse. The policy is that the patients are encouraged to eat. One day his bed was empty.
Mum died shortly after too – she had lost half her body weight. And that was with dad coming into hospital every single day to feed her. What happened if you didn’t have a relative to do that? That’s how you can starve to death on an NHS ward.
Sorry this is so grim. Why do we treat the elderly so badly in this country?