Breaking down the barriers – fighting fear

Managing Director

Every now and then, something we do at work hits a nerve because it resonates with an experience we've had in our personal lives or it brings up an issue we can relate to.

This happened to me recently with the publication of our Breaking down the barriers report, which looks at why older people are less likely to complain about the NHS than other groups of people, despite frequently accessing its services. This issue matters personally to me, partly because I have a lot of older people in my family who I love and care about.

Over Christmas I spent time with aunties and uncles, mums and dads who, like others their age, need and use the NHS more than most. Their stories of the support and treatment they get from NHS staff are almost always positive, characterised by people going the extra mile to help them.

However, our report shows that when things do go wrong with NHS care for older people, they are often reluctant to complain, usually because they don't want to "make a fuss".

We know that complaining is no easy task but we have to ask ourselves what is really happening here. Why don't older people speak out when they're not happy with their NHS treatment? Why don't they raise the alarm?

The answer is quite simple; fear. Fear that saying something will make little or no difference and that suffering in silence is the best and only option. Fear of the consequences of complaining - ongoing reliance on NHS care means that older people worry that complaining will negatively affect their treatment in the future.

Fear is a destructive feeling and although it often exists when there are no grounds for it, it can leave people feeling helpless. This is why encouragement and reassurance are so important. We want to encourage people to speak up and reassure them that they will be listened to, not punished for complaining.

It's important to emphasise that complaints are an opportunity for learning and development; NHS organisations need them to continue to improve their service.

Some of the 'younger' members of my family are quick to offer help should there ever be a need for a loved one to complain and it reminds me that a lot of older people benefit from the love and support of their friends and family. But sadly, many do not. Many are alone which is why it's essential to make sure everyone has easy access to a support network, such as an advocacy group.

I spent a day over the Christmas break giving interviews to the media about our Breaking down the barriers report and from the feedback I received, it was clear that other older people could relate to the experiences in our publication.

Later that day I saw my aunt and she echoed the comments we had been getting through our helpline; "thanks for making a fuss - I hope they listen". And I'm confident our report will be heard because the care of older people is an issue that will mean something to all of us at some stage in our lives.