Geriatrician Louise Aronson likes to tell the story about a man who goes to a doctor for a sore knee.
“It’s what you can expect at your age,” says the doctor.
“But doc,” the man says, “my other knee is the same age and it’s just fine.”
“That’s ageism,” Aronson says:” dismissing an older person’s concerns simply because the person is old. It happens all the time.”
In the same article, Aronson reports a story from a fellow geriatrician. An elderly man was brought in from a nursing home. When his case was presented to the staff, one doctor joked about solving the case by moving nursing homes farther away from hospitals. He got a laugh.
“If someone had said this about women or people of color or LGBTQ people, there would have been outrage. In this case, there was none. It makes you want to cry.”
She suggests responding politely to ageist remarks with something like this:
“…I know you’re a wonderful doctor. But I have to admit, I’m pretty disappointed by what you just said, because it felt to me that you were discounting me. I’d really like a different approach.”
That’s the way to do it. I have to admit I tend to say, “That is SO ageist.” Her way is probably better.
A clever graphic from Regis College shows the roots of ageism. Younger people don’t want to think about growing old. Medical staff are trained by misconceptions, so they feel it’s “nobler” to help a young mom than an older person.
Most important, they say, health care providers work around older people who are sick. Their experience teaches them to associate “old” with “illness.’
I agree. In my book on aging, I share a story of a geriatric nurse who was stunned to see me walk around a gym locker room: “You don’t have trouble walking, do you?” she exclaimed in awe. And I’m not even an athlete.
I’ve found that many health care providers have never seen a healthy person over sixty. In my book on aging, I share a story of a geriatric nurse who was stunned to see me walk around a gym locker room: “You don’t have trouble walking, do you?” she exclaimed in awe. And I’m not even an athlete.
A female obstetrician had the same reaction, years earlier, when she gave me the once-over as I headed to the showers. “You’re in better shape than most of my patients. And they’re young!”
A little creepy to have someone stare while you’re mostly naked, even if they’re in the medical field.
AGEISM GOES BOTH WAYS
Ageism works against younger people, too.
Young people with chronic illness experience disbelief: “You’re too young to have this much pain.”
A young woman in her early thirties faced obstacles in getting a breast cancer diagnosis. She kept hearing, “You’re young and healthy. It’s probably just a cyst.
She was inclined to accept this medical opinion, till she read an Instagram story of an even younger woman with Stage 4 breast cancer. A mammogram confirmed she had Stage 2 breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes.
In her book, This Chair Rocks, Ashton Applewhite makes a radical suggestion: “Leave age off the medical charts.”
I’d tend to agree…along with marital status and weight. They rarely help a diagnosis and can often do a lot of harm. They also increase costs to the medical system and add to the toll of unnecessary deaths associated with the medical system.