Ageism in Healthcare – What Does It Look Like?
By Kris Geerken ~
Have you ever been told your health concerns are simply because of your age? Have you ever felt unheard or invisible during a medical appointment? I sure have! This is ageism in healthcare, and it’s a big problem. It may look like this:
Talking to older adults as though they are children may be well-intentioned and meant to be compassionate, however, speaking in a sing-song voice or saying things like “Sweetie, it’s OK,” leads older adults to feel incompetent, depressed, and decreases self-esteem.
Undertreatment and overtreatment
Many of us find that our pain is consistently undertreated. Or you may be overtreated with too many prescriptions. Or you may be told to have potentially unnecessary and expensive medical tests only because you have reached a certain age, regardless of your actual health, abilities, or lifestyle.
Shortage of providers with expertise
The US has a significant shortage of health professionals with expertise in aging. Did you know geriatricians are among the lowest-paid medical providers and plastic surgeons are among the highest-paid? This is a prime example of ageism. We pay overwhelming amounts of money to avoid looking older, yet we are living longer than ever!
Original Medicare does not include basic vision, hearing, or dental care. We know that poor dental health is associated with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and can make eating difficult. Poor vision can lead to falls and restrict mobility. Hearing loss can lead to depression, isolation and cognitive decline. Not providing access to basic levels of care is ageist.
Lack of technology support
The digital divide refers to those who have access to the internet and tech devices, and those who do not. During the pandemic, telehealth expanded, yet many older adults do not have access to this option. This healthcare treatment option is not age-inclusive.
Social isolation and loneliness have serious impacts on mortality, physical health and mental health including depression and anxiety. During the pandemic, older adults were urged or mandated to remain inside, without visitors. While this may have been well-intentioned, public health professionals and policymakers need to take into consideration the dramatic impacts of being disconnected from others.
Tips for age-friendly appointments
Next time you feel you are experiencing ageism in healthcare, take these steps: if your provider implies your health concern is because of your age, ask for more details. Find out about treatment options and get clarification about recommended medications and tests. If you feel invisible or dismissed by your provider, ask your provider to speak directly to you, not to the person who may be accompanying you. Let them know you would like “person-centered care,” and to be talked to like a competent adult, not a child.
You can find more tips on our website and hear from experts who advocate for age-friendly healthcare by watching our short film “Antidotes for Ageism.” Go to ChangingTheNarrativeCO.Org and look for our “Age-Friendly Healthcare Campaign.”
Kris Geerken, MHA, is the Program Manager of the Age-Friendly Healthcare campaign for Changing the Narrative, a campaign to change the way people think, talk and act about aging and ageism.