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Find Out How Senior Volunteers Are Combating Ageism in Health Care

geriatrics care

Have you ever felt like a nurse or doctor didn’t listen to you, or failed to give you proper treatment, just because of your age?

An article by the New York Times exposed just how much ageism there is in the healthcare industry, especially among doctors who treat older adults but are not geriatricians, or doctors who specialize in elderly care.

This is a very common occurrence, as older adults account for a large percentage of patients in many medical specialties (endocronologists treating diabetics discover that almost 40% of their patients are 65-plus. Over half of surviving cancer patients treated by oncologists are 65-plus. The list continues).

With so many older adults making up the patient population, it’s a huge problem when doctors have biased attitudes against this group.

Seniors May Face Discrimination While Seeking Care

While interruptions are common in medical encounters, seniors get their appointments interrupted more often. If seniors are with a family member, a doctor may address all questions to that family member rather than the seniors, who are usually fully capable of speaking for themselves.

Some doctors even report sensing general attitudes from their peers that older adults “are not worth treating” simply because of their age.

This prejudice often begins early in doctors’ careers: as medical students, they interact with seniors mostly in hospitals, where they are often very sick and may be reaching the end of their lives. As a result, some medical students come to believe that the elderly are too weak or too ill to deserve the same time and attention as everyone else.

A New Initiative Aims to Reduce Age-Related Discrimination

Fortunately, medical schools have begun to address the problem of ageism with mandatory sessions in which second-year medical students observe interviews with healthy and happy older adults, showing that seniors are just as  deserving of quality treatment as any other patient demographic.

 

Ronald Adelman, geriatrician
Elizabeth Shepherd, left, and Dr. Ronald Adelman, a geriatrician at Weill Cornell Medical School, with second-year medical students. Image credit: Bess Adler for The New York Times

 

One senior volunteer, Elizabeth Shephard, an 82-year-old actress who teaches Shakespeare at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, met this challenge and more.

During her anti-ageism session, she cracked jokes and traded quips with her interviewer, dazzling her med school audience with her effusive personality. Steering the interview in an unexpected direction, she shared anecdotes from her romantic life, reminiscing on her various lovers and trysts.

When asked about the session by the Times, Bess said that she shared the more salacious details of her life on purpose. She wanted her audience to see she has a full and thriving life.

 

Senior Woman
“It’s important that they don’t think life stops as you get older.” – Miss Shepherd, volunteer at anti-ageism program at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. Image credit: Bess Adler for The New York Times.

Seniors Share How They Cope with Doctor Bias

When the New York Times article covering this anti-ageism initiative was published, the reaction was remarkable. It became one of the most-shared articles relating to senior citizens on social media, and the comment section garnered hundreds of impassioned comments from older adults.

One woman wrote about how she prepares herself against possible discrimination at her doctor visits:

“as a 73-year-old female, I have 2 strikes against my credibility: gender and age. When I see a new doctor (usually a specialist) here’s how I counter these strikes. First, I research what I think is my problem so I can ask intelligent questions. My questions/concerns are written down so I can quickly refer to them. I want the doctor to know I’m not illiterate or slow and I won’t accept an easy brush-off. Second, I maintain eye contact, which encourages the doc to do the same. And third, if I feel I’m getting discriminatory care (it’s happened), I complain. Pointedly. In writing. And if I’m still feeling like I’m not being respected, I change doctors. That works wonders.”

Another commenter shared her experience visiting the doctor as an older adult who is hard of hearing:

“I’m 85 and have an active life as a volunteer, artist and grandmother. I’m profoundly hard of hearing, wear two powerful hearing aids and use assistive listening devices. I recommend all student doctors learn these rules: 1) Talk directly to the patient. I’ve lived a long time and know my body. 2) Don’t speak until you see the whites of my eyes. One in three seniors over 80 have hearing loss. Making direct eye contact improves communication and is respectful.  3) Learn as much as you can about treating patients with hearing loss. Read the Hearing Loss Association of America website. 4) Write and share important information like medication directions. Take the time to make sure your patients understand. 5) NO typing on your computer while we are talking. Thank you!”

Another commenter testified to the importance of doctor-patient relationships in health care, warning of a decline in personalized attention that he has witnessed over his lifetime:

“I’m “only” 66, and until recently saw a GP who is 18 years older than me. Being an old-school doctor, he spent at least 10 minutes every visit just chatting with me about how my life was going, and sharing opinions on all sorts of things. I cannot exaggerate the value of this kind of connection for a sense of well-being and support. I have now, fortunately, found a doctor in his forties who is generous with information and who also listens to me thoughtfully, though I miss the fireside chats I used to get. It’s a new world, but medicine is about relationships, and the more young doctors who understand that the better for all of us.”

Our Promise To Older Adults At CCG

At CCG, stories like this reinforce our resolve to provide the best care possible for our older patients. With most of our staff specializing in geriatrics, we have made it our life’s work to understand the experience of older adults and cater to their needs.

We believe that part of the key to successful treatment is connecting with our patients on a personal level, and it’s what makes our jobs enjoyable, too! The brightest moments of our day happen when we get to catch up with long-time patients, trading life updates and sharing stories.

We know that older adults often have long medical histories and more complex conditions, so we pay special attention to their health story, and take every detail into consideration as we create a treatment plan.

We take time to listen to our patients’ concerns and observations, and in turn, we share our knowledge and ideas fully and clearly. We are able to develop a comprehensive healthcare plan that meets our patient’s needs because we create it together with our patients, side by side.

You can make an appointment online with CCG of South Florida here, or call our office at (954) 255-7310. Same-day appointments are available, and walk-ins are also welcome.