In her late 70s, Tressie Stilwell asked a dentist to do some cosmetic work. But instead of giving her advice on how to best fix her teeth, he raised an eyebrow and told her, “Just save your money and take a trip to Florida.”
When she told her daughter, Betty Waller, what happened, Betty was floored.
“My mom deserved a beautiful smile just as much as his younger patients,” she said. “What right did he have to disregard her request?”
Three decades before this encounter, Robert Butler, MD, coined the term “ageism” as the “systematic stereotyping and discrimination against people because they are old,” and had been advocating for their equality ever since. But despite his extensive research and efforts to spread ageism awareness, the discrimination continued.
In fact, according to Regis College, the assumption that older people are naive and helpless is still a common stereotype today—particularly in the health care industry. Some providers think the elderly can’t make their own decisions or have important discussions about their health, and some don’t take the same amount of time with older patients as they do younger ones. Conditions seniors often experience such as pain, fatigue, depression and cognitive impairment are often dismissed simply because providers consider them age-related, when proper treatment would allow patients to enjoy longer, healthier, happier lives.
Doctors, nurses and other practitioners show ageism in a variety of ways, including:
- Dismissing a treatable pathology as “just old age”
- Omitting important details about illnesses or treatment options, simply because they don’t think the patient will understand
- Speaking slowly, loudly or using basic, childlike vocabulary
- Refusing to medicate or treat because of a person’s age
- Being less engaged with elderly patients than they are with younger patients
The effects of ageism on seniors’ health
To examine the consequences of age bias in health care, researchers at Yale’s School of Public Health recently studied more than 7 million seniors around the world. They found evidence that ageism led to worse outcomes in mental health conditions, including depression and a number of physical health conditions—including shorter life expectancy. They also found ageism adversely affected whether or not older patients received medical treatment at all. And if they did, it affected the duration, frequency and appropriateness of the treatment provided.
Becca Levy, PhD, professor of public health and psychology at Yale, led the study and said the findings are proof that something needs to change.
“The injurious reach of ageism that our team documented demonstrates the need for initiatives to overcome ageism,” she said.
The increasing need for equality in health care
As if there aren’t enough seniors experiencing discrimination and disrespect when it comes to health care needs, the elderly population will rise exponentially in the next few decades. According to the United States Census Bureau, one in four Americans will be 65 or older by 2060, and the number of seniors over 85 will triple. As the demand for quality health care increases, the cause to eliminate unfair treatment of older adults becomes even more important. Hopefully with statistics at hand that show the reality of ageism, providers can begin to address the issues as more seniors seek their help.
To combat ageism, health care professionals should begin to address all patients as individuals, each with different needs. They should educate elderly patients about the importance of preventive routines such as daily exercise and healthy meals; begin all appointments by asking how the patient is feeling and what they hope to achieve by seeking medical care; and work with each patient to create a plan that addresses those goals.
How can I make sure my loved one is receiving the health care they deserve?
Even if your loved one is capable of handling their own medical issues, providers don’t always know that. It never hurts to tag along to appointments to hear what the doctor has to say—and experience how he or she treats them. Let your loved one answer questions and don’t interject unless he or she turns to you for advice. And if you aren’t comfortable with what you see, gently suggest finding another provider.
After all, that worked well for Tressie, who thoroughly enjoyed her new pearly whites while relaxing in the Florida sun.