Research from The Royal College of Surgeons suggests that, across a range of common conditions, people over the age of 65 are less likely to receive treatment. While the research indicates there may be a number of reasons for this, the authors suggest a patient’s chronological age is a significant factor, with treatment decisions made on assumptions about old age rather than a comprehensive and objective assessment of the individual. This supports previous studies which have concluded that inadequate hospital care for older people condemns many to death (NCEPOD, 2010). Poor care provision for those over the age of 65 has also been identified in social care provision to older people in their own homes. An inquiry by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (2012) found many incidents of older people’s human rights being breached because of the way care was delivered by paid carers.
Impact on practice
The introduction of a ban on age discrimination in October 2012 is timely for social workers who work with older people. This represents a good opportunity for social work to demonstrate practice that challenges the status quo based on law, values and ethics. While ministers believe provision should be based on need, not age, arguably this approach alone will not remove age discrimination in a society that is indifferent to the care of older people. Only social work practice founded on the promotion of equality and human rights will support a change in the ageist attitudes so prevalent in the provision of health and social care. Putting the principles of human rights into action is central to practice.
Questions for practice
Healy (2008, p745) states that “it is fair to conclude that social workers have usually paid more attention to human needs rather than human rights”, and goes on to suggest that what is missing from practice is a consciousness of the activity of a social worker as human rights practice. Key questions for practitioners are:
- What barriers exist in developing a human-rights-based approach to social work practice with older people?
- How can your practice help to break these down?
Equality and Human Rights Commission (2011), Close to home: An inquiry into older people and human rights in home care, London: Equality and Human Rights Commission
Government Equalities Office (2012), Equality Act 2010: Banning Age Discrimination in Services: – an overview for service providers and customers, London: Home Office
Healy, L.M (2008), Exploring the history of social work as a human rights profession, International Social Work, 51(6): p735-748
National Confidential Enquiry into Patient Outcomes and Death (2010), Elective and Emergency Surgery in the Elderly: An Age Old Problem, London: NCEPOD
The Royal College of Surgeons (2012), Access all ages: Assessing the impact of age on access to surgical treatment, London: The Royal College of Surgeons
Wintour, P. (2012), Theresa May announces blanket ban on age discrimination of patients, The Guardian, 11 June 2012