Geriatricians: The Antidote to Ageism in Senior Healthcare

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Elderly people experience a prevalent type of discrimination that has nothing to do with the color of their skin, their religion or their 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. Sadly, it’s not just younger people who are doling out ageist remarks. Some health care professionals express these attitudes as well. Dr. Robert Stall, a practicing geriatrician for over 20 years in Buffalo, New York, sees it first-hand.

“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,” Dr. Stall says. “They leave the doctor’s office thinking, ‘What do I expect? My health problems are just an irreversible part of getting old.’ ”

Dr. Stall’s take on this common exchange is a bit different. “Seniors should expect a lot at their age! 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.”

As a mentor who actively encourages premedical undergraduates and medical students to pursue a career in geriatric medicine, Dr. Stall says one solution to the problem of ageism in healthcare is to increase the number of fellowship-trained geriatricians in the United States. “The internal medicine and family practice training that most primary care doctors receive does not focus sufficiently on working with elderly patients,” Dr. Stall admits. “For that training, a doctor requires a formal program to learn about geriatric medicine, which includes rejecting ageist attitudes.”

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

“The best way to avoid ageist attitudes in the healthcare system 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,” Dr. Stall says. “It takes a certain type of person to enter the geriatrics specialty. Geriatricians are generally people who are in medicine for the reason that most doctors entered medical school in the first place: to help people live happy and healthy lives.”

With ageist attitudes coming from the media, the public and medical professionals, it can be easy to give in to these stereotypes. Caregivers must be proactive about helping their loved ones find specialized, compassionate care and avoid perpetuating these messages themselves. “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,” encourages Dr. Stall. “There is ALWAYS something that can be done to help minimize symptoms and improve quality of life. Don’t sell seniors short by succumbing to ageism.”

To find a qualified geriatrician in your area, visit the American Geriatric Society’s Health in Aging Foundation website.

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14 Comments

Aging can be a personal choice.....poor health many times comes from a refusal to care for their body mind spirit....on all levels...by eating high fat...and highly processed foods and drinks...the human body has the ability to heal and maintain itself when given what it requires to survive.an associare of mine was diagnosed with Ms..was in a wheel chair...could not speak..gained 100lbs...was heavily medicated and told that is how the rest of her life was to be....all this for11 years ...she said no it was not.....she began research...began eating raw wholesome foods only...was able to get off all meds-lost the weight-is now walking and talkin....sometimes it is genetics....but many times it is easier to just take another pill and buy into the idea that's how it is..aging itself is a disease. Recently I had an episode. Of diverticulitus...dr s said it would never go away...I would just have to live with it...they loaded me up with Medicine..sent me home..said call me for follow up..I finished their antiobotics...did research on
it..now feeding my body with what it needs..(now I am pain free and feeling
great) Ps: at the hospital everyone was astonished that at 71 I take no meds)
It was with mixed feelings that I learned of the …"..what do you expect?..".
Crippling neuropathy?,- well you just have to live with it! What a load of crap. Three doctors ago I was confused about the validity of my several aches and pains.
I'm amazed how M.D.s cover up their ignorance.
Anytime someone real young complain about an older person I will say "is your calendar going in reverse?"

I really wish the media would stop using the term "elderly" if someone who is in their 50's or 60's or even in their 70's made the news, especially if it was a traffic accident.

Or using "Grandmother" to lead into a new story when someone had died in an accident. I have no children, thus never will be a Grandmother, does that make me less newsworthy?