Department of Facebook Cats

26 July 2018

Frazer Anderson is a Consultant Community Geriatrician in East Hampshire. He is Honorary Secretary of the BGS.

Now that the vote on the name of our Society has been concluded – and regardless of the result this was the most successful exercise in participatory democracy the Society has ever carried out – I would like to suggest another way of looking at the issue.

In John Gladman’s excellent Marjory Warren Lecture at the Spring Meeting in Nottingham, he presented some challenging statistics on what older people actually want and – more importantly – don’t want. In a nutshell, older people don’t want to be old if it involves disability, dependence and suffering.

A poster at the same meeting by Aranda-Martinez et al reported on a survey of older people – mainly patients and their relatives – carried out by a “Care of the Elderly” department considering a change of name. This showed a strong dislike of that name and also of most others currently in use by our specialty elsewhere in the UK. Something involving the word “Senior” seemed to raise the fewest antibodies.

These two strands got me thinking about the relationship between what we call ourselves and what we do. I wonder if we might be missing out a few steps in the logic. Most of the discussion on this topic boils down to:

  • Older people don’t like being referred to (as), or cared for by, “the geriatrics”, so
  • We should change the name of our specialty and departments

The alternative view I came to consider:

  • Older people don’t like getting old and infirm
  • We are among a group of professions who care for the old and infirm
  • Older people see being cared for by us as a sign that they are old and infirm
  • Whatever we call ourselves we’ll still be doing the same job, so
  • In due course older people will come to regard our new name in the same way, therefore
  • It doesn’t matter what we call ourselves

I shall call this “the Hypothesis of Nominal Irrelevance”. However, with my background in research, I know that of course a hypothesis needs to be tested. Our colleagues in Older People’s Mental Health are currently carrying out uncontrolled studies in this area; for example, the two inpatient OPMH units at a hospital near me have recently had their names changed from those rooted in the proud history of their city to those of pretty flowers. However in the interests of greater scientific rigour I have come up with the following experimental model:

An even number of departments currently called “Department of Geriatric Medicine” or similar are paired by workload and staffing levels. By random allocation, one of each pair renames itself “The Department of Cute Cats on Facebook”.  The other becomes “The Department of Grim Victorian Austerity”.

Approval ratings are compared before the change, just after the change – and again a year later…

My money would be on a sharp divergence early on which almost disappears by the end of the year.

Right… Any volunteers?

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