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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

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war