SENIOR POWER: Waiting to Die

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Thursday January 17, 2013 - 10:12:00 PM

One in four Israeli seniors cannot afford heating. Fuel bills for English elderly have doubled. Meanwhile, in Berkeley, California, senior power has become a trite phrase for numerous low-income renters who must resort to space heaters, heating pads, open oven-doors, and electric and emotional overloads. Old people who do not have families or whose primary language is not English are especially disadvantaged. Nighttime is the worst.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, sixty-two year old Dr. Rowan Williams, believes that society “can’t wait to get old people off our hands.” Last month he warned that the elderly could make a massive contribution, but many people are simply waiting for them to die. “[It is an] undoubted fact that we are becoming dangerously used to speaking and thinking of ‘an ageing population’ as a problem, a burden on public purse and private resources alike.”

In his final House of Lords speech, Williams said that too many older people are being tolerated rather than valued. The extremes of human life—childhood and old age—are sidelined because of an eccentric idea that only those in the so-called prime of life can contribute. Because families are becoming more scattered as people move to different areas, some young people are growing up with little contact with older people. The tendency to view older people as dependents or as problems is the root cause of neglect and abuse. Older people are routinely seen as passive and dependents instead of as assets. “We must recognize that it is assumptions about the basically passive character of the older population that foster attitudes of contempt and exasperation and ultimately create a climate in which abuse occurs.” He called for the Government to consider introducing a commissioner for older people, similar to the system in Wales.  


Waiting for God was a BBC sitcom shown in America on PBS from 1990-1994. Presumably intended as a comedy, it was definitely unrelated to French philosopher-social activist Simone Weil’s earlier work of that title. I couldn’t see the humor of some well-off, old people residing in a refurbished 19th Century English mansion named Bayview Retirement Village and portrayed as mostly eccentric. 

Photography was at Oaken Holt, Oxfordshire, in the grounds of an estate formerly owned by a lord. Oaken Holt is indeed in the business. Visit the web, wherein management self-describes “a stunning country estate which has been tailored to meet the needs of the discerning retired and elderly; and is renowned as a care provider of distinction.”  

Waiting for God lasted for forty-seven episodes and won awards. From a typical critique: “When Tom Ballard moves to Bayview Retirement Village, he meets Diana Trent, a feisty old woman who complains about everything and wants nothing more than just to die...” Beep! Stop! Feisty… The women actors who have lines are portrayed as bitchy, alcoholic, lovelorn, quaint, outspoken or as little old [ladies] or spinsters. So much for age and gender equity!  

I perceived Diana as a gutsy, well-travelled, now-retired media reporter, a professional person whose health has betrayed her. Many old people in America, like Diana and Tom, have health problems that are sometimes, but not always, associated with aging. Standard assumptions about old people are that they have incomes and families, and, while they may not be in great shape, they are able to live in their own homes. 

Nursing home, retirement village, old folks home, senior retirement community, care provider, retirement home, and rest home are a few of the euphemistic terms associated with the business of housing hold people while they wait. Here and abroad, they may reside in assisted living, “board and care,” public housing, short and long term nursing establishments, subsidized projects, “villages,” etc. while they wonder how much longer must they wait. 



California has fewer kids and more elderly, according to a report commissioned by the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health. The number of children in California is on the decline, while the number of elderly is on the rise and fewer people are moving to the state. The report argues that the state will have to rely on fewer people to prop up its economy in the future.  

In the first Irish right-to-die case to be brought in Dublin's High Court, an Irish woman terminally ill with multiple sclerosis lost her battle for the lawful right to die. Marie Fleming, a 59-year-old former university lecturer who is completely paralyzed, made an impassioned plea in December to establish the right of her partner to help her die, an act that could currently see him jailed in mainly Roman Catholic Ireland. The Court seemingly relented when it referenced the Crown Prosecution Service guidelines, which set out that when third parties, including loved ones, would not face prosecution in relation to so-called 'mercy killings'. "The very fact that UK guidelines on assisted suicide now exist must surely inform any exercise of the Director (DPP) in this jurisdiction," said the court, adding that the list of factors compiled in the UK "provides a measure of comfort". [Reuters, January 10 and 11, 2013]  

Groups representing older people have protested strongly against Government cutbacks which halved funding for personal security alarms. Irish government grants for security alarms, intended to assist older people to live independently in greater safety, have dropped from €2.45 million last year to €1.15 million. The grants allow community groups to provide alarms under the Seniors Alert scheme. An average of 7,900 alarms annually have been supplied in the last three years.  

Geriatrics is one of the low-paying medical specialties, in part because virtually all its patients are on Medicare, which pays doctors less than commercial insurers. That the number of doctors enrolling in the nation’s fellowship programs to become geriatricians has dropped again, to 251 this year from 279 last year, particularly disappointing under the Affordable Care Act. The Institute of Medicine’s 2008 report, “Retooling for an Aging America,” documented inadequate geriatrics training for all kinds of health care providers and discussed the stereotypes that dog medical care for old people. Residents thinking about medical specialties often consider geriatrics depressing, even though surveys of practicing physicians show that geriatricians find their work very satisfying. [Paula Span, New York Times, January 9, 2013.] 

California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform (CANHR) reports that Gwen D. Hughes, former Director of Nursing of Kern Valley Healthcare District’s nursing home, has been sentenced to three years in prison for drugging residents into submission with antipsychotic and anti-seizure drugs. Hughes was the last of four defendants, including the facility’s former pharmacist, acting medical director, and administrator, charged with various crimes related to the systematic forced drugging of residents in 2006. Three of the residents died from being overmedicated. In 2009, the California Attorney General brought charges against Hughes and her co-workers after an investigation revealed that 23 residents had been regularly drugged with powerful psychotropic drugs for staff convenience, some after being pinned down and given an injection. Many of the residents swiftly deteriorated after being chemically restrained, becoming lethargic, malnourished, and dehydrated. CANHR is a statewide nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to improving the choices, care and quality of life for California’s long term care consumers. To view the full State report on the systemic drugging of Kern Valley residents, visit