Today, there is an unfortunate epidemic that is affecting the elderly. This problem is the result of biases, misconceptions, and assumptions. We refer to it as “ageism in medicine.”
Consider this: a doctor tells a 75-year-old woman to ignore her back pain because aches and pains is a “normal” part of aging. Miles away, a research study about the side effects of a cholesterol-lowering medication includes no research subjects over the age of 60. In addition, the drug in question is most commonly prescribed to the elderly. What’s wrong with this picture?
These stories have one theme in common. They reflect a serious social issue called medical ageism, a phenomenon that affects millions of American seniors.
What is Ageism in Medicine?
Ageism is described as the “systematic stereotyping of, and discrimination against, people because they are old.” In medicine, ageism results in deficiencies in the medical care that older adults receive. Ageism is a term coined in the 1970s by the late Dr. Robert Butler, renowned and groundbreaking geriatrician, and it is still occurring today.
It is a fact that the elderly receive less aggressive medical prevention, detection, and treatment than younger adults. As a result, greater rates of preventable disability and early mortality occur among this age group.
Ageism is everywhere. It occurs at the institutional level, as evidenced by the lack of training provided in geriatric medicine. It also happens at the individual level. For instance, a doctor or nurse does not spend the required time with her senior patients to get to the root of the problem because they are “depressing” or “old”.
Examples of Ageism in Medicine
- Only 40% of older Americans receive routine health care screenings for high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol. This occurs despite the fact that these conditions worsen with age.
- Only 10% of older Americans receive prostate and colon cancer exams even though early intervention is crucial for treating these diseases.
- A doctor complains that his next patient is a “difficult old lady” who is a “trainwreck” waiting to happen.
- A 70-year-old widower tells his doctor that he is always sad and has lost a lot of weight. The doctor doesn’t refer the man for depression screening despite the fact that the suicide rate for elderly white men is higher than it is for any other group in America.
The list goes on.
How Can I Help?
If you are a healthcare provider or professional caregiver
- Seek out training opportunities in geriatric care and medicine.
- Be mindful of any implicit biases (prejudices you may not be aware of) that affect how you perceive and interact with older adults.
- Be aware of the language you use to describe older patients. Phrases like “cranky old-timer” and “sweet old lady” may seem harmless, but they can perpetuate stereotypes about older adults.
If you are a family member or caregiver
- Be assertive in ensuring that your loved one receives routine, preventive care. Do not assume that her physician’s office will automatically conduct regular screenings.
- Help empower your senior relative to have a plan before talking to the doctor.
- Educate yourself about ageism in medicine and become an advocate for your older relative.
For more information about David York Agency’s qualified, compassionate caregivers, contact us at 718.376.7755. A free consultation will help determine what services your loved one needs. If you’d like to hear more from us, please like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter, Google+, or LinkedIn.