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We write them off as vulnerable, non-sexual burdens – but the elderly are not just a problem to be solved

A new regular column, "Nurse in the City", by Brian Kellett.

Have you heard of the “pink pound”? Of course you have – you read the New Statesman. I’m guessing that you also know about the “grey pound”, the demographic that takes in the elderly of this country.

You will know about the “ticking time bomb” of the ageing population and about how pensions are becoming so expensive that many of us will have to work until we are 68 or older. The elderly are also seen as “bed-blockers” who take up hospital places (though half of their hospital beds have been cut).

As a community nurse in east London, I spend most of my working day seeing people in their homes. You learn quite quickly in this job that the elderly are just as diverse as the rest of us and that it is misleading to refer to them as a homogenous lump. I used to work in various branches of emergency medicine. Back then, I saw patients for a very short time. After many years, I decided that struggling with drunks and dealing with young people who thought that a blocked nose was an emergency worthy of an ambulance were starting to wear a bit thin. Now, I have the time to get to know my patients and they get to know me. In many cases, we are on first-name terms. And each patient is different.

There is a woman I visit who is intensely proud of how clean she keeps her house, despite living on her own and being nearly blind. She has a little rota in her head – on Wednesday morning, she mops the floor (whether it needs it or not); in the afternoon, she vacuums the carpets; on Thursday, she dusts her house from top to bottom, and so on.

Then there is the woman who lives in a very mucky house – the sort of place that has you wiping your feet on the way out – and until recently would refuse all help from us. Finally, she agreed to let some people in to give it a tidy. It’s still dirty but there’s been a big improvement. I like both of these patients equally. They show their independence in different ways; they are quite happy in their way of life.

There are also the sisters who live together and are as thick as thieves (I swear they are conspiring to do something, like in Arsenic and Old Lace) and the woman who was thrown out for marrying a man from India – her family could not stand the “shame”. They drove her not only from her family home but from the village she grew up in.

The elderly, apparently, are nonsexual. Perhaps someone should tell that to the chap who says he enjoys looking at pornography, though “nothing down there” has been working for years, or the other man who has a wife and children but still flirts with me (it probably doesn’t help that I keep insisting on looking at his naked buttocks as part of his care package).

I see atheists, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jews. I see those with pin-sharp minds and those in the midst of dementia. I don’t need anniversaries to remind me of wars because I hear true stories about them on an almost daily basis. As I sit on the floor in front of my patients, bandaging their legs, I hear about how they became friends with German POWs, or how they drank themselves through Italy following their commander, or how they looked after their mates, or how they got to carry the “bastard big gun” because they were the tallest in their squad. For many of them, it was the formative experience of their life, not something simply to be trotted out every 25, 50 or 100 years and “celebrated”.

As I change their catheters, I listen to them talk about their time as union leaders; about strikes and how they did their best for their members. Some of them espouse political views that I disagree with. Sometimes, I nod my head and let it slide; at other times, I’ll have a good-hearted argument.

There seems to be a consensus that the elderly are vulnerable people who get abused in nursing homes, get pensions that are unsustainable, will freeze to death in a cold snap and take up valuable hospital beds, all at the expense of the “hard-working taxpayer”. But what we need to accept is that they are people and not just a problem to be solved.

Next week: Dr Phil Whitaker’s Health Matters

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.