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Gerald Charles Joseph Bennett

Geriatrician who campaigned against the abuse of elderly people

Gerald Charles Joseph Bennett, professor of health care of the elderly Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry and former medical director Tower Hamlets Healthcare NHS Trust (b 28 July 1951; q Welsh School of Medicine 1976; FRCP), d 13 April 2003.

By his own declaration, a few weeks before his untimely death, Gerry Bennett had "a wonderful life." He had devoted his professional and much of his personal life to the care of older people, as a doctor, a teacher, a manager, and a campaigner. He changed lives (and had a lot of fun) working with similarly committed and energetic friends and colleagues, on several continents.

Gerry graduated from the Welsh School of Medicine in 1976 and his earliest research was concerned with clinical standards and delays in treatment. From there, and throughout the 1980s, he began to focus on the care of elderly patients, at that time a neglected specialty. Gerry made an outstanding contribution to the development of clinical services at St James’s Hospital and to the teaching of ageing at St George’s. His drive and enthusiasm led to Ward 14, with its 17 beds, 10 place day hospital for recovering inpatients and ward follow ups, and an attached small occupational and physiotherapy department being featured on a BBC television programme.

He was appointed as consultant to the London Hospital in 1984. Gerry was one of a handful of campaigning geriatricians who drew attention to the need for high level specialist care and research in that field. His research on pressure ulcers led later to the establishment of the pioneering East London Wound Healing Unit. Here, Gerry’s commitment to an interdisciplinary approach and teamwork was apparent. The four bed unit combined the work of clinical nurse specialists, dermatologists, vascular surgeons, chiropodists, and social workers within the Bancroft Unit at the Mile End Hospital. As a member of the European Advisory Panel on pressure ulcers, he was able to influence clinical practice outside the United Kingdom and raise the profile of geriatric medicine internationally.

Gerry’s work on wounds and injuries together with his careful attention to patient experiences led him, in the mid-1980s, to expose the extent of abuse suffered by elderly patients. From that time onwards he campaigned and researched to promote greater understanding of the cause and effects of elder abuse. Again, he took this work worldwide. He was founder chair and later president of the charity Action on Elder Abuse, and cofounded the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (INPEA), with links in Brazil, Canada, Australia, and Spain. Gerry was the main researcher for a World Health Organization sponsored project on elder abuse in Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Canada, India, Kenya, Lebanon, and Sweden. The well received research report, "Missing Voices," was published in 2002. This and other work took him, and INPEA, to the United Nations Assembly on Ageing and to contribute to UN investigations into age and gender discrimination and breaches of human rights.

Gerry’s vast experience and knowledge were central to his enthusiastic teaching. Successive years of students found him an inspiring teacher who ran one of the most popular courses at Barts and the London Medical School. Always in complete command of his material, he instilled in students respect for academic and professional rigour without ever being stuffy. Also he demanded honesty from them about their own strengths and weaknesses, always tolerating the latter provided that they were never accompanied by the arrogance and narrowness of vision that Gerry believed to be the bane of clinical life. He formulated a series of study guides and later obtained a substantial grant to have these translated to CD Rom, being, thereby, well ahead in the game of online teaching.

In 1995 Gerry became medical director of Tower Hamlets Healthcare NHS Trust. Here his talents as a teamworker, a leader, and, above all, one who helped others to achieve their potential were most evident. He brought innovation and changes—clinical audit, a medical education programme, a systematic approach to dealing with adverse incidents that predated national attention to the issue by some time, and a concern for ethical research and day to day practice.

Throughout his career, Gerry wrote, edited and co-authored textbooks, readers, and articles about the care of elderly people, elder abuse, Alzheimer’s disease, and wound care. After periods as a visiting professor at the Karolinska Institute and at Queen’s University, Belfast, he became professor of health care of the elderly at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary, in 2000.

Knowing and working with Gerry was fun. He maintained an essential sense of proportion among the missionaries, mercenaries, and madmen employed by hospitals in the east end of London, thriving in a difficult environment for far longer than most could manage. Gerry was principled, avoiding the quick fix and the easy way out in favour of patiently explaining the issues at stake, emphasising our collective responsibilities, and never wavering from a duty to provide high quality health care for older people. He was creative and determined to make his advocacy for older people count. This was not always easy but Gerry could be, in the words of a colleague, "viciously reasonable." The real empathy he had with older people was as persuasive. Another colleague said that he was just the kind of person one wished to have as a doctor in old age for one’s parents and for oneself. Gerry enjoyed looking after patients and their families, and managed a busy clinical workload until he fell ill.

Gerry also taught us how to play—always have a bottle of champagne in your fridge, and two cherries in a dry martini are better than an olive or a twist; travel far and often; and baseball is the sport for all seasons.

The last few months of his life were lived between work, hospital, and home. The melanoma treated in 1983 had come back in virulent form and progressed rapidly. Gerry had little doubt about the outcome. He faced this with grace and courage, being thankful for his life, which he said had been "a very good life, exciting and fulfilling" and reminding friends to "live for the moment."

Gerry’s mother, Madeleine, his partner, Tom, his lifelong partner, Hywel, friends, colleagues, and patients loved and miss him greatly. A meeting to celebrate his life will be held in September 2003. [Len Doyal, Shah Ebrahim, Sheila Hillier, Peter Millard, Anthea Tinker, Hilary Scott]