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.