Widow’s call for NHS age equality

A woman has called for an end to NHS age discrimination after revealing how doctors “wrongly assumed” her elderly husband’s life was not worth saving.

Joy Matthews, of Caerphilly, said doctors wanted to withhold treatment from her late husband Jim because he was 76 and had Parkinson’s Disease.

She said they only helped him after she told them of his “active” life.

The Welsh secretary of the British Medical Association (BMA) said he had heard similar “anecdotal” stories.

However Dr Richard Lewis, said such discrimination was “unacceptable”.

Mrs Matthews’ call came as the Equalities Bill was published, aimed at tackling discrimination against the elderly and people from working class backgrounds.

Employers with a workforce of more than 250 staff will also be made to reveal how much they pay men compared with women.

Mrs Matthews said although her husband had had Parkinson’s for 20 years, he remained active and alert, even though when he was tired he had to use a wheelchair or scooter.

He was taken to a local hospital after he became ill with a sickness bug and later transferred to an intensive care unit at another hospital.

It was then that Mrs Matthews was approached by a consultant.

“He said ‘Mrs Matthews your husband is a very old man and he’s been ill for a long time and my understanding is that he just sits in the chair all day and that his quality of life is very, very poor’,” she said.

“And I sort of looked at him and said ‘that’s not my husband’. I said ‘you’ve been fed entirely the wrong information’.

“He goes to committees, he’s driving the car, he goes to B&Q and gets stuff for DIY jobs and he’s quite active really, no way is his quality of life poor, within the parameters of Parkinson’s of course.

“But he was coping with it… In fact the day before he went into intensive care he asked if he could have his laptop in the hospital to do some minutes.

“So no way was this the same man being described to me.”

She said the consultant took what she said “on board”.

“He said ‘ well, we weren’t going to fight for his life, we were just going to let nature take its course. But in view of the fact what you told me, I think his life is worth fighting for’.

“And from there on they pulled out all the stops.”

‘Fight for everybody’

Sadly, Mr Matthews later passed away.

But his wife said she was determined to highlight what happened to try to end age discrimination in the NHS.

“I don’t think that would have been put to me if my husband had been 36 and not 76,” she said.

“I don’t think there would be any queery about continuing treatment or, as the consultant said, ‘let nature take its course’. They wouldn’t have done that for a younger person.

“They would have fought for his life and I think they should fight for everybody’s life.”

She said she was “astounded” at what the consultant had told her and warned that other elderly people may be at risk if they do not have someone to speak up for them.

“They [the patient] could be sitting there or lying there not having been given their medication, showing themselves at their worst with nobody to fight their corner and that is the worrying thing,” Mrs Matthews said.

“You can see their [the doctors’] point of view and they have got beds and beds with old people in. There’s got to be a temptation to let nature take it course,” she added.

“You’ve got to look at both sides of it. But if there’s a chance to save somebody’s life, go for it.”

Dr Lewis said in recent years there had been a “shift in attitude” about age discrimination, particularly as improvements in surgical procedures meant there was not such a risk to operate on elderly people.

However, he said he was worried to hear “anecdotal” evidence that this might be changing, which he believes is down to increasing pressure on resources and management.

“I think there has been for some time a drive to drive out age discrimination in the NHS,” he said.

“My impression was we had got away from the that once you’d got to 70s you’d ‘had a good innings’.

“I think there has been increasing equality in health care because of advances in health care. But I have heard a few anecdotal stories that have filtered down to doctors about pressures in the system.

“Whether or not that pressure gets worse and we see a shift back to ageism I’m not sure. But I can say that will be totally unacceptable to doctors and the BMA.”