My guest today is a consultant geriatrician. She is also a very brilliant writer and consummate storyteller.
Dr Lucy Pollock grew up in Northern Ireland and, given that both her parents were doctors it was perhaps no surprise that she chose to train in medicine, first at Cambridge and then at Bart’s hospital in London.
In fact, even though her father was a geriatrician, the young Lucy wasn’t sure which speciality to choose – she enjoyed them all – and it was only when a consultant said – and this is interesting – that “he hoped she wouldn’t be offended” but he thought she should choose geriatric medicine, that she immediately realised he was right.
After a short stint as a junior doctor in East London she moved to Somerset where, for 21 years, she has specialised in the care of those who are frail and elderly.
Older people, says Lucy, are interesting. They are also boring, good-humoured, bad-tempered, serene, irritable, amusing, grouchy, selfish, generous, happy-go-lucky and nervy. “Older people are just all of us grown up”. Of course they are – so why can’t we all see that?
It is in order to open up the conversation around old age, something we all reach if we are lucky enough and yet seem to shy away from, that she has written her book, called – without ducking or diving – The Book About Getting Older, for people who don’t want to talk about it. And if anything is going to get a reluctant middle ager to face up to the subject, it is this witty, moving, informative book.
Published last year, it’s received plaudits from reviewers as diverse as the British Geriatrics Society to comedian Sandi Toksvig, who described it as the most important book about the second half of your life you’ll ever read, celebrity doctor Phil Hammond and the ex-shadow chancellor Ed Balls. The Evening Standard summed it up for me. “Dr Lucy Pollock,” it said, “is a geriatrician, and the kind of person you want to clone”.
For Dr Pollock, the appeal of geriatric medicine is its combination of complex science and unpredictable humanity. And while that astute consultant was obviously right in his advice, why did he think his suggestion might prove offensive?
Lucy says that in the last quarter of a century geriatric medicine has come into its own as more and more doctors realise how important and interesting it is, and it now attracts young medics in their droves. She loves it because it’s complicated, team-based, unbelievably rewarding and involves a lot of cake. “You have to be really nosy to be a good geriatrician” she says.
Towards the end of this pretty lengthy book – which reads like a dream – and after she’s covered all the knotty issues, from the extravagant cocktail of pills often prescribed for older people, some of which not only don’t work but, worryingly, are positively harmful, to preventing falls, choosing care homes and gently suggesting to an ageing relative that they should give up driving, she looks back over her years as a geriatrician.
She observes that her patients have been assets with gifts to offer of which she’s been the recipient. She’s been given a look, a letter, a pat on the hand, cherry liqueurs, an email that left her sitting at her desk, tears streaming, a card, a smile, a folded note that contains love as tangible as a pressed flower, secrets … and lesson after lesson in courage.
You can see now what I mean about her joyous writing. She brings subjects alive with characters who walk off her pages into your life – characters like George and Margaret, Nancy and Clem, Noel and Mark – and all their individual, sometimes uplifting, sometimes heart-breaking, stories teach us things about old age, whether it’s advance care plans, incontinence, near-impossible discussions around resuscitation or the big D, dementia, which she describes as “a word primed with emotion, pinned in the thoughts of many to images of loss, fear, indignity” before going on to explain why this perception is so wrong.
Lucy Pollock is obviously very, very clever, but she’s very funny too, and human and self-aware. She offers her chapters on dementia with, and I quote, “some hesitation and considerable respect” because she hasn’t experienced a diagnosis of dementia or known what it’s like to live in the same house as someone with the condition day in, day out. How wonderfully refreshing is that (humility).