More of us are living longer with longterm health conditions. The healthcare crisis is a challenge for our society and discussion needs to move beyond politics. We need a vision of life that looks beyond our personal interests and struggles and values community
A doctor friend told me recently that as a medical student he’d expected he’d go into the community and cure people. But when he became a GP he learned how many problems medicine couldn’t solve. His patients had to live with them as chronic illnesses.
We’ve heard recently about the growing challenges for health and care services as more of us live longer and develop long-term physical conditions like diabetes and arthritis; or mental ones like depression and dementia. The test for politicians is how public services can manage rising demand on finite resources. But as well as what the state provides, it’s also a challenge for us as individuals and as a society.
Individually, the challenge is that, if we live longer while feeling sicker, we need to learn to manage better with pain and difficulty. My GP friend commented that many of us regard our bodies as if they were cars. When something goes wrong we take them in to be fixed; and if the doctor can’t fix the problem we’re shocked.
When I’ve worked with people with chronic pain using mindfulness, I’ve seen that learning to calm our minds and acknowledge the reality of our condition can make a big difference. Pain and disability needn’t mean you can no longer live a meaningful and even an enjoyable life, but it’s not easy and we need help to become more resilient.
The collective challenge is that looking after more people in the community means that the community itself needs to be stronger. Many of us already respond as carers or through the voluntary sector. But at a time when society is becoming more fragmented and we feel less natural connection with our neighbours, we need to cherish a vision of life that looks beyond our personal interests and struggles.
Among others, religious and spiritual traditions have much to offer here. People often think that Buddhism, for example, focuses on self-development. In fact, it’s about overcoming selfishness, and a central focus of Buddhist life is what we call sangha: the community of those who live by the same values. My involvement in Buddhist sanghas has taught me that a healthy community needs constant attention. We foster it throughout our lives by connecting with other people and by giving our time and our friendship.
The care crisis isn’t going away and sooner or later it will affect us all. It’s time for the discussion to move beyond politics and to start exploring what it means for our own lives.