The Archbishop of Canterbury, in his last speech in the House of Lords, argued that too many people in society are waiting for the elderly to die, and that only those in the “prime of life” could make a contribution.

Society was, Rowan Williams said, ‘so frenetically orientated towards youth’ that it was missing out on the contribution older people can play. Given that one in six people in the UK is over the age of 65, and with over 3 million people due to retire in the next few years, it’s increasingly hard to ignore older people.

‘The real issue is about the link between nurse training and how society wants its older citizens cared for’

While there may be issues about standards of nursing care in some places, as the acrhbishop’s speech may indicate, it’s difficult to separate the much bigger issue of older people in society and the debate about nursing.

In fact, the two are inexorably intertwined. It’s impossible to see how the caring professions can be isolated from, and not be influenced by, society’s attitudes towards older people.

Debate deflecting attention

While I don’t doubt that the vast majority of nurses and carers do a good job, I equally don’t doubt that a small minority have struggled to do so. If that wasn’t the case then the 130-plus inquiries into healthcare failures that we’ve had in the last 50 years would have been considerable less. 

There is obviously a problem with our approach to caring both within the caring professions and society at large. And if we think that Mid Staffs and Winterbourne View will be the last, think again. Neither governments nor regulators can legislate for human behaviour.

The argument about whether nursing should or shouldn’t be a degree-based profession, and the influence this has on nursing practice, is merely a displacement activity.

The real issue is about the link between nurse training and how society wants its older citizens to be cared for in the community and when receiving healthcare. So, while we may choose to berate the caring professions when things go wrong, perhaps we should think more widely and look at what’s happening across society as a whole?