Karen Hitchcock – On Caring for the Elderly

Karen Hitchcock’s essay Dear Life: On Caring for the Elderly is compassionate, respectful and beautifully written. As a study of ageism in our society, it is also seriously scary.

The author is a physician who works in a major Melbourne hospital. Her patients are mostly elderly. She has a Doctor of Philosophy Degree in Writing and is the author of award-winning fiction.

Dear Life
Dear Life

In this important essay, Karen Hitchcock conveys the sense that exists in our society of the hopelessness of old age. She suggests that this may be because younger people do not want to confront their own mortality. Perhaps they see their future selves in the elderly.

‘My chief aim is to strike a note of caution and to make explicit something that often remains unsaid and yet can be heard quite clearly: that the elderly are burdensome, bankrupting, non-productive. That old age is not worth living.’

Karen Hitchcock writes realistically about the problems of ageing. She writes also about the difficulties faced by health professionals who are confronted with sick old people. Ageing people who present at a hospital for treatment often have more than one physical problem. Often, too, they have complex social needs.

Karen Hitchcock - author and doctor
Karen Hitchcock – author and doctor

Ever increasing specialisation within the medical profession means that doctors focus on their own micro area of expertise. Patients presenting with ‘multi-morbid’ conditions can set off what Karen Hitchcock calls ‘turf wars’. Many  specialist doctors do not want to take responsibility for these old men and women and their multiple problems.

‘What if you come with two or three or four organs failing, and can no longer negotiate your stairs to go and buy food? What if your disease won’t fit into a fragment? Who will be your doctor?’ she asks.

There is another perceived problem that results when aged care facilities send ill patients to an acute hospital. Karen Hitchcock quotes one surgeon, who said: ‘It’s ridiculous: none of these patients should be treated. None of them.’

I once worked as a registered nurse in an aged care facility. I remember cringing at a barrage of abuse from a hospital registrar. I had dared to send an old woman who had experienced a heart attack by ambulance to ‘his’ hospital.

Some hospitals do manage to care very well, for elderly patients. Others are ‘overstretched, underfunded and caring for far too many patients’. Always there are ethical, fiscal and humanitarian problems about treating the elderly.

An aged life worth living
An aged life worth living

The essay discusses aged life that is worth living. It touches on euthanasia. It discusses advanced care planning. This involves the health care system’s plans for an elderly individual with chronic disease. Hitchcock also writes about Advanced Care Directives. These include a person’s instructions for their own end-of-life care.

There are major structural problems in the health care system when it comes to caring for older people.

But Karen Hitchcock offers a glimmer of hope. She manages to show another, dignified side of ageing, illness and death.  Anecdotes about her much-loved grandmother, as well as those about some of her patients, are full of warmth and understanding.

Care and compassion
Care and compassion

As an avid reader of Karen Hitchcock’s regular essays in The Monthly, I expected Dear Life would be engrossing.  It did not disappoint. This is a learned essay. It is also easily accessible to the lay-person.

 Quarterly Essay No 57, Dear Life: On Caring for the Elderly, by Karen Hitchcock, rrp. $22.99.

I subscribe to the Quarterly Essay and this is a review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015.


4 replies on “Karen Hitchcock – On Caring for the Elderly”

  1. I am looking forward to my old age…perhaps because I have had great role models and have been preparing my own children to be strong advocates as my voice becomes more and more inaudible due to ageism prejudices.

    I am incredibly grateful that even as a 16 year old I could recognise and speak out about ageism. In 1980 an English Teacher at my high school tried to fail an essay I wrote on the subject because she did not understand! Thank goodness I have had the exposure, support and education to talk out about discrimination where ever I find it!

    I pride myself on passing on these skills to my Year 1 students. It is never to early to learn about the world and what we can do as individuals when we come up against biases and prejudges. Hopefully they will be part of the solution in changing attitudes and advocating on behalf of those lucky enough to live to old age!

    Annie O’Callaghan

    1. Great comments, Annie, thank you. I’m pleased you’ve had good role models for ageing and that you’ve always spoken out about prejudices. Sometimes I know it has been very hard. I keep hoping that by the time you and my other children are old, there will be less prejudice against older people. Certainly, Karen Hitchcock is a leader in the field.

      I think you may have commented on my blogs before, but they’ve somehow gone into the spam and I’ve deleted them. I need to check before I delete!

  2. How very right you are. It is quite concerning on many levels. I wonder why our health dollar is not seen to be as worthy as for those who are younger. One wonders where it leaves everyone and what kind of a future do we leave behind? Some of us now classified as elderly or dare I say old were not always so.. Is our future at the end of a needle?? Or under a mask of some description.?? Rosiex

    1. No, with physicians like Karen Hitchcock, our futures are full of hope, I think, Rosie. You will love the essay. I’ve heard you talking like Dr. Hitchcock!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: