Older people face stereotypes, prejudices or discrimination because of their age when seeking medical help


Joanne Whitney, 84, a retired associate clinical professor of pharmacy at the University of California, San Francisco, often feels devalued when interacting with healthcare providers.

A few years ago, she told an emergency doctor that the antibiotic he wanted to prescribe would not counteract the type of urinary tract infection she had.

He wasn’t listening, even when she mentioned her professional references. She asked to see someone else, to no avail. “I was ignored and eventually I gave up,” said Whitney, who is a lung and urethral cancer survivor and relies on a special catheter to drain urine from her bladder. (An outpatient renal service subsequently changed the prescription.)

Then, earlier this year, Whitney landed in the same emergency room, screaming in pain, with another urinary tract infection and a severe anal fissure. When she asked for Dilaudid, a powerful narcotic that had previously helped her, a young doctor said, “We do not distribute opioids to people who seek them. Let’s just see what Tylenol does.

Whitney said her pain continued unabated for eight hours.

“I think being an 84-year-old woman alone was important,” she said. “When older people come in like this, they don’t get the same level of commitment to do something about it. It’s like, ‘Oh, here’s an old person in pain. Well, that often happens to the elderly.

Whitney’s experiences speak to ageism in healthcare facilities, a long-standing issue that garners attention during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than half a million Americans aged 65 and over more.

Ageism occurs when people face stereotypes, prejudices or discrimination because of their age. The assumption that all older people are frail and helpless is a common and incorrect stereotype. Stigma can consist of feelings such as “older people are unpleasant and difficult to deal with”. Discrimination is evident when the needs of older people are not recognized and respected or when they are treated less favorably than younger people.

In health care settings, ageism can be explicit. One example: medical care rationing plans (“crisis care standards”) which specify treating young adults before older adults. A value judgment is built into these standards that have been implemented by hospitals in Idaho and some in Alaska and Montana: Young people’s lives are worth more because they likely have more left over. years to live.

Justice in Aging, an advocacy group, filed a civil rights complaint with the US Department of Health and Human Services in September, accusing Idaho’s crisis care standards of being ageist. The group also called for an investigation.

In other cases, ageism is implied.

Emogene Stamper, 91, from the Bronx in New York, was sent to an underfunded nursing home after falling ill with COVID-19 in March. “It was like a dungeon,” she recalls, “and they didn’t lift a finger to do anything for me.”

Stamper’s son fought to get his mother admitted to an inpatient rehabilitation hospital where she could receive intensive therapy. “When I got there, the doctor said to my son, ‘Oh, your mother is 90 years old,’ as if he was a little surprised, and my son said, ‘You don’t know my mother. You don’t know this 90-year-old man, ”Stamper told me. “It lets you know how disposable they feel to you once you hit a certain age. “

At the end of the summer, when Stamper was hospitalized with an abdominal problem, a nurse and orderly came to his room with papers to sign. “Oh, you can write! Stamper said the nurse exclaimed loudly when she put her signature. “They were so shocked that I was alert, it was insulting. They don’t respect you.

Almost 20% of Americans 50 and older report being discriminated against in healthcare settings, which can lead to inappropriate or inadequate care, according to a 2015 report. A study estimates that the annual health cost of ageism in America, including the over- and under-treatment of common medical conditions, stands at $ 63 billion.

Nubia Escobar, 75, who emigrated from Colombia almost 50 years ago, wants doctors to spend more time listening to the concerns of older patients. This became an urgent problem two years ago when his longtime cardiologist in New York City retired to Florida and a new doctor struggled to control his high blood pressure.

Alarmed that she might pass out or fall because her blood pressure was so low, Escobar sought a second opinion. This cardiologist “rushed me – he didn’t ask a lot of questions and he didn’t listen. He was sitting there talking and looking at my daughter, ”she said.

Her daughter is Veronica Escobar, an elder law lawyer. She remembers the doctor constantly interrupting her mother. “I didn’t like the way he treated her and I could see the anger on my mother’s face,” she said. Nubia Escobar has since seen a geriatrician who concluded that she was over-medicated.

The geriatrician “has been patient,” said Nubia Escobar. “How can I tell? She made me feel like she was thinking all the time about what could be best for me.

Pat Bailey, 63, receives little of this kind of consideration at the Los Angeles County Nursing Home, Calif., Where she has lived for five years since having a massive stroke and multiple heart attacks. subsequent. “When I ask questions, they treat me like I’m old and stupid and they don’t answer,” she said.

Ed Palent, 88, and his wife Sandy, 89, of Denver, also felt disheartened when they saw a new doctor after their longtime doctor retired. “They went for an annual check-up, and all this doctor wanted them to do was ask them how they wanted to die and have them sign all kinds of forms,” ​​said their daughter Shelli Bischoff, who had permission from his parents to discuss their experiences.

“They were very upset and said, ‘We don’t want to talk about this,’ but he didn’t let go. They wanted a doctor who would help them live, not figure out how they were going to die.

The Palents then moved to another medical office, where a young doctor barely looked at them after performing cursory exams, they said. This doctor failed to identify a dangerous staph bacterial infection on Ed’s arm.

They are now in the office of a concierge doctor who has made a sustained effort to get to know them. “It’s the opposite of ageism: it’s’ We care about you and our job is to help you be as healthy as possible for as long as possible,” Bischoff said. “It’s a shame it’s so hard to find.”


Kaiser Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues.


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