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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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Is it really hypocritical for lefties to send their kids to grammar schools?

Both sides now.

The year is 2030. Half the developing world is under water. The US passes a constitutional amendment allowing President Ivanka Trump to stand for a third term. The Labour right is increasingly confident that, this year, it might finally remove Jeremy Corbyn.

You, however, don't care about any of this because your mind is on other things. Your eldest is turning 11, and Theresa May's flagship education policy has been a success - there is now a grammar school in every town, as well as rather a lot of secondary moderns. And so, you need to decide what matters to you more: your egalitarian left-wing principles or your determination to get the best possible education for your kid.

Let's get one thing straight before we get too far into this - bringing back grammar schools would be a terrible education policy. There's no evidence for the contention that they create social mobility – they tend, in fact, to be dominated by the most prosperous families, who have the sharpest elbows and find it easiest to fund tutoring for their kids. What's more, while the kids who attend grammar schools tend to do pretty well, the majority who don't do worse than you'd otherwise expect.

As a result, overall education standards are higher in comprehensive areas than they are in selective ones. (The BBC's Chris Cook has written several excellent pieces on this topic; here’s one of them.) One of the few things that can unite both everyone in education policy, and everyone in the Labour party, is that grammar schools are terrible.

Neither of those groups are in charge of the country right now, however, and Prime Minister May – not a woman who's lacking in intellectual self-confidence at the best of times – seems particularly committed on this one, so grammar schools we shall have. For middle-class lefties, then, the question seems very likely to become: is it hypocritical to send your kids to one?

There are, it will stun you to learn, two schools of thought on this.

One denies that it's even a question: of course it's hypocritical. Selective schooling will do untold damage to education standards, the economy and social fabric, not to mention the self-esteem of the vast majority of kids who get told they're a failure at the tender age of 11. How can you possibly claim to care about disadvantaged kids, even as you expend time and money that other parents don't have on coaching your kids so that they don't have to go to school anywhere near them?

The other school of thought is more nuanced, and – one can't help but noticing – more likely to be expressed by those whose age is closer to 30 than to 18.

Selective education is a bad system, it concedes – but it is not a system that will go away just because I, personally, refuse to take part in it.

Obviously I'd prefer to send little Timmy to a comprehensive school. But in the selective world of 2030 there won't be comprehensive schools, merely grammars and secondary moderns. Someone's kid is going to get that place in a grammar school. By not pushing for it myself, all that I'm doing is disadvantaging my own child, without actually making the world better.

The first lot, in other words, think it's immoral to buy your place in a lifeboat while the kids in steerage drown. But the way the second group sees it, prioritising abstract principles over the life chances of your child is immoral. (You could call it the Jeremy Corbyn vs Claudia Bracchita argument). And so, whenever this topic has reared its head, people tend to end up shouting at each other, if not filing for divorce.

At risk of looking all wussy and liberal, I genuinely can't work out where I stand on this one. On the one hand, there's something quite persuasive in the argument that one can fight against grammar schools, but still send your kids to one - there's nothing inconsistent about wanting to change a bad system, but still trying to make the best of it. (I'm still imagining a 2030 selective education dystopia, of course: arguing against grammar schools, then deliberately moving to Kent so your kids can attend one, is rather harder to defend.)

One the other hand, there is something inherently uncomfortable in left-wingers finding theoretical justifications for their own selfishness ("Of course, taxes should be higher. But since these loopholes are there, well..."). I also, by the by, went to private school (sorry), and suspect that the 7 per cent of the population which did the same sticks its oar into the state education system far too much already, so maybe I should shut up.

Before I do though, here's one last cynical thought. At the moment, Labour is united on grammar schools - they are obviously bad, we obviously shouldn't create any more of them. If selective education were to become national policy again, however, that unity could plausibly crumble. And one of the few issues that can unite the entire Labour movement simply wouldn't be there any more.

I'm not saying this is the motive behind Theresa May's obsession with grammar schools, but it would be a helpful side effect.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.