What Do You Know About Care Home Medical Negligence?


The Law Of… respecting the wishes of the elderly

A judge has come out on the side of common decency and criticised the practice of separating elderly couples, who move into residential care, against their wishes.

Daxa Patel, Medical Negligence Partner at Simpson Millar and a former carer for her late elderly father, answers questions on the UK's care homes and the possible medical consequences of not respecting the needs of the elderly.

Dying Of A Broken Heart

It was Sir James Munby, Britain's most senior family judge, who summed up the business of refusing elderly couples shared accommodation as "absolutely shocking and a profound indictment of our society". He added that separating people, who had spent the greater part of their lives together, in such an inhumane manner could be fatal, citing recorded incidences of couples dying within days of each other from 'broken hearts'.

"That is not chance or coincidence, I suspect."

The comments were made at a conference for the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) and came in the wake of one recent high profile case where an elderly couple were only allowed to stay in the same residential home after an online petition brought their plight to wider attention.

How Many Elderly People In the UK Are Living In Residential Care?

There are 11.6million people aged 65 or over living in the UK.

Of these:

  • 405,000 (approx.) are living in residential care
  • 59.2% of those in care are aged 85 or over (according to last set of figures from 2011)
  • 55% have a chance of living beyond their first year of admission, rising to 70% for the second year
  • The median timeframe from moving into a care home to passing away is 15 months

There are approximately 5,153 nursing homes and 12,525 care homes in the UK.

What Is The Difference Between A Care Home And A Nursing Home?

Both a care home and a nursing home offer residential accommodation for the elderly and include 24 hour supervision, along with meals and assistance for personal requirements.

The two differ with regards to the medical support offered. A nursing home will have a registered nurse on duty 24 hours a day. This allows them to provide care and administer treatment to residents who have medical conditions or are in the final stages of life, whereas a care home would have to call in a district nurse to undertake such procedures.

All residential care homes in England need to be registered with the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

Why Are Elderly Couples Being Forced To Live Apart When One, Or Both, Enters Residential Care?

The differences between a care home and a nursing home are often at the heart of the decision to split up elderly couples entering residential care. It costs more to place somebody in a home with nursing provision than it does to place them into an ordinary care home. In cases where the one partner has medical requirements that demand full nursing supervision and the other partner's healthcare needs are not as intensive, it is often seen by local authorities as too expensive to keep them together.

There is also an issue arising from when couples are placed together in nursing homes and the one requiring the medical assistance dies, leaving the healthier partner in accommodation they otherwise would not qualify for. This prospect can also make financially starved local authorities reluctant to ensure a couple remains together.

What Are The Consequences Of Separating Elderly Couples In Care Homes?

Aside from the inherent cruelty of forcibly separating two people who have spent their lives together, implicitly for financial reasons, there are also the health factors.

Loneliness has long been considered detrimental to a person's health (whatever their age), with evidence and research showing it can affect both the immune and cardiovascular systems, as well as being linked to stress or depression. For those with existing conditions, such as one half of an elderly couple moved into a nursing home due to dementia, the sudden separation from a lifelong partner can aggravate their illness, leading to a rapid deterioration in their health and possible fatality.

Another potential killer is 'Broken Heart Syndrome'. Although not an official medical term, it is an informal name given to a Takotsubo cardiomyopathy. This is a sudden weakening of the heart muscle, thought to be brought on by shock or extremely stressful situations. Most make a full recovery, but for some, particularly the elderly, the temporary change in the heart's shape the condition causes, can result in a fatal heart attack. In instances where couples have died within days of each other, the second death is often put down to broken heart syndrome and there is the potential for the shock of a sudden separation to have the same effect.

What Is The Bigger Picture?

The wishes and feelings of the elderly are often ignored, which leads to situations where financial considerations take precedence over their ultimate wellbeing.

Respecting the needs of the elderly is essential to maintaining dignity and ensuring they get the most from their final years that their situation will allow.

Daxa comments:

"I am glad Sir James Munby said what he said. It is indeed horrendous that those in charge of elderly care give scant regard to people's feelings by separating couples on the final lap of their journey."

"No matter how frail a person is they still need emotional support. Often elderly couples, due to their different care needs, are sent to separate care homes against their wishes. However, even those with dementia may still recognise their loved ones and gather strength from being with them."

"I currently act for a number of elderly clients in respect of medical negligence blunders and the one common theme I find is that their wishes and feelings are ignored. Why is this? Are those in charge of care under so much pressure they forget the fundamentals of respecting the elderly and their needs."

"We must, as a society, treat our elderly in a caring and compassionate manner. Simply attending to their physical requirements is not enough. It is time health and social care workers looked at the emotional needs and did more than just pay lip service"

If the care decisions made on behalf of an elderly relative of yours led to deterioration in their health or their passing away, you may be able to claim compensation. Contact one of the Medical Negligence team at Simpson Millar today.

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