Compassionate Literature: Books on dignity and growing old

With today’s publication of the Dignity in Care report, which advises how to improve to the treatment of elderly people in hospitals and care homes, we take a look at two particularly pertinent books. Dignity by Donna Hicks is the first comprehensive exploration of dignity, its role in human conflict and its power to improve relationships of all kinds. Losing It by William Ian Miller is a wickedly funny, effortlessly erudite book on the horrors of growing old.

Following a series of critical reports on the state of the UK’s care for the elderly, Age UK, the NHS Confederation and the Local Government Association set up the Commission on Improving Dignity in Care for Older People, the aim being to improve standards in hospitals and care homes across the country. Today the commission published its report, which advises that nurses, doctors and care workers should be recruited as much for their compassion as for their skills. The group said too many vulnerable people were currently being “let down”.

One of the authors of the report, Sir Keith Pearson, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning that dignity was “the essence of proper nursing”. He said: “There are pockets within the NHS and the care home sector where we are seeing excellent care. But you can go to hospitals…and you can see a couple of wards where dignity has broken down.”

Dignity by Donna Hicks

Dignity by Donna Hicks

The desire for dignity is universal, and is the subject of Donna Hick’s powerful new book Dignity: The Essential Role it Plays in Resolving Conflict in Our Lives and Relationships. Like the recent elderly care report, Hicks identifies dignity as an extremely important motivating force behind all human interaction, especially in families, communities and in relationships.

When dignity is violated, the response is likely to involve aggression, alienation and potentially even violence. On the other hand, when people treat one another with dignity, they become more connected and are able to create more meaningful relationships.

Hicks, an expert in conflict resolution, observes that surprisingly, most people have little understanding of dignity. She examines the reasons for this gap and offers a new set of strategies for becoming aware of dignity’s vital role in our lives and learning to put dignity into practice in everyday life.

Drawing on her extensive experience in conflict resolution, as well as on insights from evolutionary biology, psychology and neuroscience, Hicks explains what the elements of dignity are, how to recognize dignity violations, how to respond when we are not treated with dignity, how dignity can restore a broken relationship and why leaders must understand the concept of dignity.

Hicks shows that by choosing dignity as a way of life, we open the way to greater peace within ourselves and to a safer and more humane world for all.

Although there is widespread support for the Dignity in Care report, there have been questions asked of the practical implications. Skeptics argue that the growing number of elderly people in the UK means that it is more likely that employers will have to be less selective in recruiting future caregivers, not more. This growing rate of old people means that a deep understanding of the intellectual and emotional state of the elderly is required, rather than a simple understanding of the medical factors. This is central to the Dignity in Care report, which argues that ‘compassion and kindness’ are as important as the day-to-day medical care patients receive as standard.

Losing It by William Ian Miller

Losing It by William Ian Miller

In Losing It: In Which an Aging Professor Laments His Shrinking Brain, William Ian Miller brings his inimitable wit and learning to the subject of growing old, providing a unique and poignant insight.

The “it” in Miller’s “losing it” refers mainly to mental faculties—memory, processing speed, sensory acuity, the capacity to focus. But it includes other evidence as well—sags and flaccidities, aches and pains, failing joints and organs. What are we to make of these tell-tale signs? Does growing old gracefully mean more than simply refusing unseemly cosmetic surgeries? How do we face decline and the final drawing of the blinds? Will we know if and when we have lingered too long.

Drawing on a lifetime of deep study and anxious observation, Miller enlists the wisdom of the ancients to confront these vexed questions head on. Debunking the glossy new image of old age that has accompanied the graying of the Baby Boomers, he conjures a lost world of aging rituals—complaints, taking to bed, resentments of one’s heirs, schemes for taking it with you or settling up accounts and scores—to remind us of the ongoing dilemmas of old age. Darkly intelligent and sublimely written, this exhilarating and eccentric book will raise the spirits of readers, young and old.

Losing It and Dignity are both available now from Yale University Press.

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