The following is an extract from an interview with artist gobscure. He tells me about his elderly friend, Marty, who died in December 2018, after being admitted to hospital for a minor fall. Readers may find the following content distressing.
Marty used to say, “I hate being a little old lady, but at the end of the day, I have to recognise that I am”. She was from Walker in Newcastle. She had TB as a child. They cut out her lung – that isn’t a treatment for it, but they didn’t know that. She was in Poole Sanitorium in Teesside, and then the new-founded NHS saved her life.
Marty had all her marbles – as in literally, I’d given her various marbles, including a world marble, and she kept them in a little see-through glass owl behind a sofa. When social workers came, she’d tell them she’s not lost any of her marbles, and she’d order them to turn round and see. They’re right there! Mentally she was sharper than anyone.
She was entitled to a certain amount of support, but the level of care was crap. She spoke up, and a social worker did visit to go through the paperwork. If you’re a social worker, never ever say to an older person, ‘Well, you’re an older person, perhaps you’re getting confused.’ Never say that to them ever, unless this is a very specific case, where we’re looking at dementia or something like that. Don’t say that to Marty, because she is way brighter, more marbles, more on the ball than any of you ever! Then the social worker went and typed up the complaint as, ‘Marty is satisfied with her level of care’. She said the exact opposite! She was being silenced, being erased.
A few years before [she died] she had said, “When I do die, would you speak for me?” and I was like, “Well, if I’m still alive and I’m not locked up and I can, it would be one of the greatest honours.” She did say, “You can say anything you like. I’ll be a bit pissed off if there aren’t any tears, but I don’t want too many, and I hope some of them at least are the good kind.” She hoped that I’d remind people that she saw the world a little differently.
She said, “The train is pulling into the final station.” She’s got one lung, she’s older, she’s survived a number of other health conditions. The probability is that it’s not going to be a huge amount of time. But it shouldn’t have happened the way that it did and at the time that it did.
She hadn’t even had a fall, she’d slipped. She was sitting on the edge of her bed, and she had slipped. She was taken to hospital in pain, obviously she’s incredibly skinny, and she’s got osteoporosis, so it hurt more, but it was bruising rather than broken bones or anything like that. It wasn’t a critical thing. She was admitted only having slipped. I know that’s serious for someone of that age and – horrible word – ‘frail’, but it was only that and nothing more.
She was in the care of the ventilation team, but that was in the community, and she was admitted to a general ward. Because this wasn’t a ventilation issue, it was another issue, they were supposed to liaise with ventilation. There are two different ventilation systems. Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) and non-invasive ventilation. She was on non-invasive ventilation. The ventilation team knew that, but in the general ward they had no idea that they were different machines. They look very similar. She was on the right machine, but it was being monitored wrongly. And they gave her morphine even though it’s contraindicated in her medical notes. So she has a reaction. They also refused to monitor her carbon levels until the last few hours, when it was too late.
The staff just thought, ‘Oh, she’s got a little bit of a breathing difficulty. She’s a bit chesty. So it’s not that important. She’s whinging and moaning about her mask.’ She’s incredibly small, the mask didn’t fit. They tried to say she was ‘non-compliant’. Here is someone in her eighties, she has complied with the vent team at home. She’s taken it off because it’s the wrong the wrong flow, the wrong humidity, the mask doesn’t fit, and you don’t understand a thing. You’re not listening to her. And she literally is choking on air.
Do you speak up? How often do you speak up? And she didn’t have much oxygen, so she couldn’t speak up that much. If you’re literally gasping for breath, how do you say stuff? And if you’re pushing your mask off, it’s not because you’re non-compliant. How dare you as a member of staff say that? It’s because she’s choking. She can’t fucking breathe.
They tried in the paperwork after the inquest to pass responsibility to Marty, and also to family and friends, saying she had described it as CPAP. No. She’s not confused, you are confused. This is your own staff that described it as that. You mislabelled it, not her. It’s not acceptable.
She went in having slipped. They fucked up everything.
It was fifteen months waiting for an inquest.
After Marty’s death, the hospital made huge changes, but they didn’t accept responsibility, because she could have died anyway. The consultant said, and the coroner agreed, that of the category of people that are ‘frail’ and admitted to hospital, one third of them die within a year. In that year they could have an amazing quality of life, the death might not be anything to do with [the reason they were admitted to hospital]. But that category of ‘frailty’, they use that to justify this attitude of, ‘That lot of people? Them? Fuck ’em. They’re gonna die anyway.’
There were levels of responsibility: there’s individual doctors just walking away and saying, ‘No, someone else on the next shift can sort it,’ – that did happen – and there’s the system. It’s one of those things. The banality of evil, the boringness of mistreatment of people.
Marty’s story reveals something that has become painfully clear throughout the COVID-19 crisis: our society does not value the elderly. It views them as expendable. It systematically ignores, neglects, disempowers and silences them. It is past time that disabled activists and artists extended the hand of solidarity to the elderly. They, too, should not be removed.
Interviewed by Leonora Gunn