A Royal College of Nursing nurse in social care know better than most that age is just a number. In this modern era, our later years can be as dynamic and productive as the start of our lives.
The evidence of our ageing population is almost exclusively spoken of in hushed, negative tones in the newspapers, but numerous studies show many older people are seeking travel vaccinations and sexual health advice.
However, nurses are all too aware of the complex care needs of older people. A small but significant group require round-the-clock nursing with requirements that can be physically intensive but also ethically challenging.
The history of caring for our older generations is not always an easy one and it’s for this reason that the RCN Library and Archive is focusing on the Aspects of Age in its latest exhibition. The story of care is shaped by how societies have viewed older people and how we value the role of those that care for them.
So, what can we learn from the attitude of the past as we await the social care green paper, the heralded blueprint to fund social care properly in the future?
In the nineteenth century, the elderly and chronically ill were often left to the mercy of the workhouse and the Poor Law system. Images of the Poland Street Workhouse in 1809, kindly lent from the Wellcome Collection to the exhibition, show a spartan set of wooden benches and long draughty windows – a world away from modern care homes.
A form of nursing care did exist in these institutions but was delivered by older female inmates. The treatment of older people rapidly became a national scandal and a wave of bad headlines led to the disbandment of the Poor Law in 1929. Local authorities became responsible for those in need of healthcare.
The exhibition shows how pioneering nurses like Matron Eva Huggins pioneered a change for both older people and people with long term conditions. Their enthusiasm wasn’t met everywhere, however. Accommodation continued to be substandard and equipment wanting.
As a profession, older people’s nursing struggled to detach itself from the low status reputation it had gained over the past century. There was no encouragement for bright young doctors and nurses to pursue older adult care. It was simply not a popular place to be.
Fast forwards to the second half of the twentieth century and important strides were made. In 1985, the Nursing Development Unity at Tameside Hospital’s Department of Care for the Elderly afforded nurses the chance to study and work abroad, refresh skills and use a state-of-the-art onsite library. Innovative as this project was, it couldn’t match pace with increasing numbers of frail, older people.
Some futurists claim the first person to live to 1,000 has already been born. While that might be hyperbolic, technological advances that will allow people to lead very long lives may already be in the pipeline. The Aspects of Age exhibition will run at RCN headquarters in Cavendish Square until 30 September and throughout the exhibition, RCN members and non-members alike can take part in events throughout the country.
Nurse working in social care may be particularly interested in a joint event on the The Joy of Sex Beyond 70 and what barriers older people face in continuing a romantic life, and what nursing staff can do support safe sexual expression and intimacy on 23 September in London. People based near Sheffield can enjoy a discussion on the history of care at home presented in partnership with the Queen’s Nursing Institute.
It’s more important than ever to learn the mistakes and triumphs or our past to ensure a bright future for care.