Guardian of the longevity dividend
Consultant geriatrician Prof Des O’Neill has written a book full of advice on growing old in Ireland
Prof Des O’Neill: ‘We, as medical professionals, have to be careful not to make ageing just about falls and incontinence.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Prof Des O’Neill, consultant geriatrician at Tallaght hospital, Dublin, has one of those mind-boggling curriculum vitaes that leaves you dizzy after reading it.
His extensive involvement in old-age medicine includes being the co-founder of the European Union Geriatric Medicine Society, the first medical director of the Alzheimer Society of Ireland, and author of the Leas Cross report, which was the first major review of sub-standard care in nursing homes in Ireland. He is also the current chairman of the National Centre for Arts and Health.
He has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers and chapters and was awarded the All-Ireland Inspirational Life Award in 2010 for advancing the cause of older people in Ireland.
Readers of Health + Family will already be familiar with O’Neill’s expansive views on ageing from his monthly column and now he’s written his first book, Ageing and Caring – a Guide for Later Life (Orpen Press), which is a practical manual full of information and advice on all aspects of growing old in Ireland.
Why did he write the book with so much diverse sources of information out there already?
“Well, I bought about 30 books on the subject and realised that nearly all of them were oriented towards the spouse or adult children.
“Very few addressed the older person him or herself,” says O’Neill.
Even a quick skim through the book will show you that O’Neill is a frank advocate of how what older people want and need isn’t always the same as what their adult children want for them.
“Older people recognise what they need as they age and the agenda of the carer has shared and divergent elements in this.”
He continues: “We used to have family meetings when there was a complex discharge from the hospital and we came across units where the patient wasn’t at that meeting. Now, we have care planning meetings and the person states who should come from the family.”
Speaking about why he chose geriatrics as his specialty, O’Neill says: “I had a positive experience of older people as a child [the fifth of eight children] and that of my parents’ relationships with their parents.
“Our house often had older people in it and I saw them as fascinating and interesting.”
All four of his grandparents did, however, develop dementia and all spent their last days in nursing homes.
He cites a gap year while studying medicine at Trinity College Dublin in the 1980s as a particularly formative experience.
“I volunteered with Les Petits Frères Des Pauvres in Marseilles, France. There was a deep and intensive homecare programme for older people which celebrated birthdays, holidays and special days. This view of older age as a time for celebration stayed with me.”
O’Neill says that when working in Britain as a young doctor, he was greatly influenced by visionary and radical medics there.
“People like Bernard Isaacs who said, ‘If you design for the young, you exclude the old; if you design for the old, you include the young.’”