There is something both heartwarming and heartbreaking about the sight: an older man, so stooped he is bent almost double, pushing an empty wheelchair down the pavement. His wristband marks him out as a hospital inpatient. Step by faltering step, he totters back towards the large white building and the awaiting ward.
A woman—his wife I presume—walks beside him, now and again reaching a hand out to the chair—for support herself or perhaps to correct its wavering course. She too is frail, with silver hair pulled back tightly, and wearing a neat twinset and pearls. Despite her sensible shoes, it is impossible to imagine how she could possibly propel her husband in his chair—perhaps they have simply run out of walking frames on the ward again.
The hospital towers in front of them. Indistinct figures can be seen behind the large windowpanes and I picture the hectic geriatric ward many floors above. The continuous, appropriately soulless beeps and buzzers as the confused or infirm call for help or simply some human company; the swarm of doctors who pass through once a day, leaving a trail of investigations and medications in their wake—it seems such an unlikely setting for the couple before me. They seem neither infirm nor demented, just frail and old.
As I watch, the man gesticulates anxiously at the chair. The woman hesitates, watches him motion again, and then steps stiffly sideways and folds herself inside. Her husband applies himself, and slowly, slowly, the chair moves forwards.
Heartbreaking, I decide as their silhouette passes slowly through the automatic doors and the couple are swallowed by the hospital. They don’t belong here. Our “modern” hospitals do not treat older patients well. What good is separation in an anonymous bed in a hospital ward, where you’ll be subjected to an endless barrage of investigations and a stream of different faces? The majority of older patients do not need expensive tests or drugs. They need love, care, and recognition by their community; the support of a GP to sustain their quality of life for as long as possible; and, above all, help with the cleaning and shopping, with getting out of bed in the morning, and preparing meals. However, in our world of high-tech immediacy, these simple solutions seem to be far beyond our reach.
Emma Ladds is an academic F2 in Severn Deanery about to commence plastic surgery themed core surgical training in the Oxford Deanery.
Competing interests: None declared.