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Dublin: 6 °C Friday 10 April, 2020

Opinion: After seeing what my dad has gone through, I'm convinced we need an Ombudsman for the Elderly

Think about your average week and how much bureaucracy you have to deal with. Now think about how difficult that is for an older person.

Claire Micks

WE HAVE A high profile Ombudsman for Children whose role it is to protect the rights of those younger members of society who are unable to protect themselves. We do not have an equivalent for the elderly, who are oftentimes equally as vulnerable as our children, if not more so:  they have a lifetime of complexity behind them and no one to turn to if and when it all becomes too much to handle. And , unlike their younger counterparts, they have the assets to attract those who would choose to take advantage.

In this country there are a myriad of different ombudsmen covering a multitude of different disciplines and industries. But if I struggle to work out which one deals with what complaint, I can only imagine how my 77 year old father would fair. Sometimes I think it would be easier to get hold of the man upstairs himself than to get our various institutions held to account.

I only realised exactly how vulnerable older people have become when I started helping my own father out with his affairs. Reading through his files was deeply unsettling on so many levels. Personal, professional, human. The manner in which he had been treated by our large institutions, both public and private, was infuriating.

Think about your average week and the level of paperwork and bureaucracy you have to deal with. Think about the complexity that has slowly crept into every area of our lives. The number of passwords we need to recall in order to just get the system to recognise our existence. Or the gargantuan struggle to get to speak to another human being, let alone one whose mother tongue is the same as your own. How many numbers on your phone you have to hit and how many minutes of hold music you have endure. Just take a moment to think how persistent you need to be these days to get anything done and how difficult it can be to get anyone held to account.

Now add 50 odd years to the clock, a slowing mind, a little frailty and a slight fear of the internet, and see where you end up. I’ll tell you where. You give up. And worse still, you think it’s your fault. That you’re no longer up to the job and that the world has left you behind. And your rights become a casualty of our fast and furious age.

The problems my dad has faced

In the past year alone I have watched my father be discharged from a private hospital with a canula still in his arm. They couldn’t get rid of him quick enough.

Or the geriatric nurse who spoke to him as if he were a two year when he happened to lean on the edge of a table. She coldly informed him that what he was seated upon was ‘a table’, not ‘a chair’, and that ‘in this ward, we do not sit on tables’. As if he didn’t know the difference between the two. A junior infant would have been extended more respect.

Or the public hospital which has a blanket policy of refusing to issue duplicate receipts. So he cannot claim back what he’s legitimately entitled to. Because the institution in question has a grudge against those in our society who ‘cannot keep up’. You snooze. You lose. Tough.

Or the utility company who refused to cut off the supply even after the fire brigade had been called three times. Because their systems and processes ‘did not compute’ the complexity of the scenario we were faced with.

Or the salesman who called to the house and convinced my dad he needed an entirely new heating system and made off with a four figure cheque. Even though his existing boiler was fully functional.

Not to mention the ‘charitable’ organisations who chugged him for donations. They saw him coming and went in for the kill. The frailty of the signature on those direct debits made my blood boil.

Who safeguards the elderly? 

Where do we go with these kinds of complaints? Whose job is it to safeguard the elderly and ensure that they are treated with the dignity, the respect, the patience they deserve?

We do have the Office of the Ombudsman, but it seems to cover every ill known to man and doesn’t reach out to older people in particular. In any event it only covers public bodies, or more precisely ‘administrative actions’ of ‘reviewable agencies’. As if your average 77 year old in the early stages of dementia is going to be able to decipher that.

Then you have the Financial Services Ombudsman. But with them you are required to formally complain to the institution in question first before they’ll come near you. Which assumes that the customer in question has the stomach, or indeed the lifespan, for that kind of protracted carry on.

The HSE has had to set up a specific website, such is the level of complexity involved in identifying whose accountable for what in their sphere. They list no fewer than 15 different specific complaints procedures’ranging from HIQA to the Medical Council to the Mental Health Commission. What a maze?

Not to mention the Pension’s Ombudsman, the Equality Authority, the National Consumer Agency, to name but a few more which fit into the equation somewhere. I’m not quite sure where.

With children there is just one port of call. They have a dedicated and independent advocate to fight their corner. Why not afford the same support to the other vulnerable, and every increasing, demographic in our society?

How it could work 

Any such office could act as an advocacy service for the elderly and tread the delicate balance needed between patronising those in need of assistance and abandoning them. It could investigate complaints and publish their findings which would undoubtedly act as a powerful incentive for corporations mindful of public image and corporate social responsibility. It could serve as a centre of excellence in research and policy matters relating to the elderly and it could compile codes of conduct on every day issues which currently make life unnecessarily difficult for both older people and their families.

Geriatricians specialise in the challenges of the old, as paediatricians specialise in those of the young. If the medical profession can recognise old age as a speciality requiring a unique skillset, then perhaps we should follow suit. As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Children’s Ombudsman, can we consider also protecting the other end of the spectrum? Even if they’re not as cute….

Claire Micks is an occasional writer who also happens to be a frustrated daughter.

Read: There is only one respite bed per 450 people with dementia in Ireland > 

Read: These Irish artists prove that age is never a barrier to creating art > 

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Claire Micks

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