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Friday, April 5, 2024

Ageism in health care is more common than you might think, and it can harm people

Ashley Milne-Tyte
Originally posted 7 March 24

A recent study found that older people spend an average of 21 days a year on medical appointments. Kathleen Hayes can believe it.

Hayes lives in Chicago and has spent a lot of time lately taking her parents, who are both in their 80s, to doctor's appointments. Her dad has Parkinson's, and her mom has had a difficult recovery from a bad bout of Covid-19. As she's sat in, Hayes has noticed some health care workers talk to her parents at top volume, to the point, she says, "that my father said to one, 'I'm not deaf, you don't have to yell.'"

In addition, while some doctors and nurses address her parents directly, others keep looking at Hayes herself.

"Their gaze is on me so long that it starts to feel like we're talking around my parents," says Hayes, who lives a few hours north of her parents. "I've had to emphasize, 'I don't want to speak for my mother. Please ask my mother that question.'"

Researchers and geriatricians say that instances like these constitute ageism – discrimination based on a person's age – and it is surprisingly common in health care settings. It can lead to both overtreatment and undertreatment of older adults, says Dr. Louise Aronson, a geriatrician and professor of geriatrics at the University of California, San Francisco.

"We all see older people differently. Ageism is a cross-cultural reality," Aronson says.

Here is my summary:

This article and other research point to a concerning prevalence of ageism in healthcare settings. This bias can take the form of either overtreatment or undertreatment of older adults.

Negative stereotypes: Doctors may hold assumptions about older adults being less willing or able to handle aggressive treatments, leading to missed opportunities for care.

Communication issues: Sometimes healthcare providers speak to adult children instead of the older person themselves, disregarding their autonomy.

These biases are linked to poorer health outcomes and can even shorten lifespans.  The article cites a study suggesting that ageism costs the healthcare system billions of dollars annually.  There are positive steps that can be taken, such as anti-bias training for healthcare workers.