Ageism: Discrimination Against the Elderly

Elderly people experience a type of discrimination that's prevalent, and it has nothing to do with the color of their skin, their religion or socio-economic status.

"What do you expect at your age?" "You're not getting any younger!" Do these statements sound familiar?" The "old geezer" stereotype is an unjust and prejudicial generalization that assumes all older adults naturally become weak, sick and forgetful. This is what constitutes "ageism".

Ageist attitudes are not only hurtful, they are harmful. It's not just younger people – family members, friends, or complete strangers – who are doling out the ageist remarks. Some health care professionals have the same attitude. Dr. Robert Stall, a practicing geriatrician for over 20 years in  Buffalo, New York, sees it first-hand often. "And I can tell you from 23 years as a geriatrician, when an older person visits a doctor with valid health concerns such as loss of bladder control, decreased mobility or memory impairments – and is met with a 'what do you expect' attitude from a doctor or nurse – the mindset rubs off on the patient. He or she leaves the doctor's office thinking, 'What do I expect? I'm not getting any younger. My health problems are just part of getting old.' "

Stall's response? "What should you expect at your age? A lot! That's my mantra when working with elderly patients. The fact is, older people get sick from disease, not old age. People can remain healthy, vibrant and of sound mind well into their 70s, 80s and even 90s."

Stall, who serves as a mentor for premedical undergraduates and medical students, actively encouraging them to consider a career in geriatric medicine, says one solution to the problem of ageism in healthcare is to increase the number of fellowship-trained geriatricians. "The internal medicine and family practice training that most primary care doctors receive does not focus sufficiently on working with elderly patients. For that training, a doctor requires a formal program to learn about geriatric medicine. This program has very little redundancy with internal medicine training. The body of knowledge called geriatrics includes getting past ageist attitudes."

Physicians with increased awareness of aging as an important component of their medical training could have a great impact on combating ageism.

However, geriatricians continue to be in short supply. Only about 10 percent of U.S. medical schools require work in geriatric medicine. The American Geriatrics Society says there are only about 7,600 physicians nationwide certified as geriatric specialists.

"For caregivers, the best way to deal with physicians who have ageist attitudes is to find a reputable geriatrician who understands and believes that a positive attitude towards aging has a great impact on a patient's health and outcomes," Stall says. "It takes a certain type of person to enter the geriatrics specialty. It's not about the financial rewards for these people – they could easily choose a different area of medicine that would be far more lucrative. Geriatricians are generally people who are in medicine for the reason that most first went to medical school – to help people live happy and healthy lives, not to make a lot of money."

To find a qualified geriatrician in your area, visit the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) website.

Stall advice for caregivers: "You too must avoid falling into the mental trap of thinking the health conditions that plague your aging parents are just part of getting old. There is ALWAYS something that can be done to help your older loved one's ability to deal with their health problems and enjoy life at least a little bit more. Don't sell yourself short by succumbing to ageism."

 Dr. Robert Stall has been a practicing Geriatrician for more than 28 years, owner of Stall Geriatrics in Buffalo, New York and serves as a mentor for medical students who are considering entering the field of geriatrics.

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