Who Is A Pensioner and How Should We Treat Them?


 License: CC 3.0 Attribution/BYCG

 This year there have been several incidents among my family and friends which, taken together, have caused me to be more observant and more thoughtful about how the elderly are treated, the attitudes towards them and the perceptions of what they are able to do and what is appropriate ‘at their age.’

In the last twenty or so years there has been a big general shift in the way the elderly are treated – mostly because of the need to adjust as a country to deal with the increasing numbers of elderly people.  The move towards keeping the elderly in their own homes for as long as possible is much better for them, but there is also less social stigma attached to families placing an elderly relation in a care home – or indeed the elderly themselves declining to go into a home to be looked after, if they prefer (and can afford to pay). However, the system is still developing and does not move smoothly in all areas at all times – as the many scandals still being uncovered, testify.


Although most of the situations I have witnessed are on the charitable side towards the elderly, there have also been occasions where people have been unhelpful or appeared vaguely frightened about contact with an elderly person. There have also been some misconceptions:

Wheeled walking aid = likely dementia sufferer.

The evidence of a ‘wheely walker,’ as we call them in our family, means simply that the person has some balance problems, and the walker is to stop them falling over when out and about. They are usually perfectly sound of mind, especially if out on their own, and these walkers may be needed at any age – not just pensioners. Sufferers of certain illnesses and conditions such as MS may need a walking stick or wheely walker to help with balance, and MS is usually discovered when the person is only in their thirties. There may also be cases where someone needs temporary help while recovering from surgery and ‘finding their feet’ again.So we shouldn’t make snap judgements

People in their eighties should be content to stay at home at night.

An elderly lady I know, after a significant time in hospital followed by a spell of recuperation in a care home returned home to pick up her life. As she lives alone, carers were assigned to go and help twice a day. However, she was greeted with some astonishment when she asked to cancel the evening carer once a fortnight so she could go out and meet a group of friends in a nearby town. The assumption was that at her age she shouldn’t want to go out at night. But why not?

She books a taxi to transport her from door to door and because she has used the same company for several years, she and the driver tend to ‘set the world to rights’ in discussion as they travel. The small group she meets is fairly mixed in age range and their discussions exercise her mind. Sometimes she is also given something to think about at home afterwards. The staff at the venue also know her and chat to her. All in all she finds a lot of mental stimulation from attending, which keeps her topped up until the next time. In the winter, this is often the only time she leaves the house and so she really looks forward to it.

Grey hair = bus pass user.

This one is common among bus drivers, and to be fair, perhaps they are only playing safe. Perhaps it is also many people these days choose to dye their hair to cover up the grey, but it’s not everyone that can afford to do so in these difficult times, and some prefer to age naturally by letting the grey appear as it will. There is no defined age when hair turns grey, it can actually happen at any time of life, and so it could be taken as an insult to be taken for a pensioner when you are nowhere near pension age. As the retirement age is pushed back, for everyone to work longer, this is likely to happen more and more. Increasing numbers of ‘working age’ people will have grey hair long before they can claim their pensions.

Care and Institutionalisation

We are all familiar with the old image of care homes. Elderly people sitting in a circle of easy chairs nodding off in boredom. Fortunately, most care homes are no longer like that, and some go to great lengths to provide mental stimulation and varied activities for those well enough to take advantage of them. Unfortunately, there are still some homes where the elderly are left sitting alone in their room all day, with nothing to do, which is even worse than sitting together in a communal room with nothing to do.

There is also a problem of lack of mental stimulation in hospitals, among the elderly. Now we all know that the NHS is always short of money and the staff are overstretched, but mental health and physical health are not totally detached from each other. If an elderly person is left sitting in a chair, staring into space, hour after hour, day after day, even the most strong-willed person could lose the drive and will-power necessary to fight their illness.

A younger person would be far less likely to be treated like this, so why do we expect it of the elderly? Just because they look frail doesn’t mean their minds cannot be still sharp and very active. This is how patients become institutionalised. It may make them easier for staff to handle, but it’s not good for their well-being, or their recovery.

When an elderly person goes home after a prolonged stay in hospital carers are often sent to help for at least a few weeks to make sure they can cope. The job of the short-term care team is to help and encourage the person to do things for themselves and make the necessary adjustments to take back control of their lives. If it is then felt that the person still needs help on a daily basis, a long-term care team is assigned to go in and do whatever is necessary, for an allotted time, for up to four times a day, although most only need help twice a day. If the difficulty is borderline, the elderly person can begin to feel they have to wait for the carer and give up trying to do things for themselves.

Finding a Balance

The carers I have met have been pleasant and generally efficient at their work, but some of the elderly are very independent and not ready to admit they need help, they can feel resentment at the ‘intrusion’ into their homes and their lives. Finding the balance between helping a person remain independent for as long as possible and taking their independence away can be a very fine line.

As a society, we need to think hard about who we judge to be ‘old’ and not write people off too early. Grey hair doesn’t mean a person is incapable of working efficiently. But we also need to continue developing the care system for the genuinely elderly with their needs at the centre – and be prepared to listen to their comments and complaints. Don’t brush them aside just because they are old and infirm, be prepared to help them continue to do as much as they can for as long as they can. After all, it’s their life and we will be in their situation one day. Think carefully about how you would want to be treated at their age.

What do you think?