Deborah McAleese: Crisis-hit Northern Ireland health service failing older population

Mahatma Gandhi famously said: “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”

If we look at how our older generation is currently being treated, then it is a very sad reflection of our society.

The older generation is being failed terribly by a health service once described as the envy of the world.

Frail, vulnerable patients are being left suffering in the back of ambulances for hours on end because there’s no room in the hospital.

In Emergency Departments, they can spend days lying on make shift beds, squeezed into whatever spare space that can be found, within reaching distance of other patients.

While at their most vulnerable, all privacy and dignity is stripped away.

Meanwhile, chronic workforce shortages in the domiciliary care sector is leading to too many of our older people losing their independence.

Unable to return home from hospital because no home support package can be sourced in time, patients are instead having to be placed in a care home.

Health trusts say it is a temporary measure, until a domiciliary care package can be sourced. But some patients have been waiting for up to a year for that support.

Health professionals have warned that the longer a patient is unable to return to their own home, to regain their independence, they can deteriorate both physically and mentally.

Age NI has warned that the current crisis within the health system could deter some older people from seeking medical attention, potentially increasing the risks to their health.

“At a human level, the current situation is very distressing for older people and their families,” said Dr Paschal McKeown, Age NI Charity Director.

“We urgently need the whole health and social care system to work together to ensure older people are treated with dignity and respect, to receive the care and treatment they need in a timely way,” her added.

Like the rest of the world, Northern Ireland is experiencing demographic shifts in terms of an ageing society.

By mid-2028, the proportion of the population in Northern Ireland aged 65 and over is projected to be 20.1%, overtaking that of children under 15 for the first time ever.

We may be living longer, but without a proper health service, it’s not necessarily a decent life.

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