One phrase that I despise hearing is one that begins with: “At your age …” Whatever statement that follows seems to imply mounting years equals unpleasant or undesirable changes — so why bring them up?
I thought about this while working on an upcoming presentation and learned my own feelings were pervasive and a substantial problem for older adults. The name for this rather dismissive and demeaning behavior is “senior profiling.” It is a largely unconscious behavior that discriminates based on an individual’s age. The ramifications can be life altering. As a senior adult and credentialed healthcare provider, I write in hopes of encouraging everyone to examine their images about aging.
Our culture adores youth and negatively portrays seniors. All individuals aged 65 and up are negatively lumped into a stereotype. The image that emerges is an old, frail, decrepit, forgetful, sickly person with decreased mental ability and cranky disposition. If you doubt this, go look at the Hallmark birthday card rack! When we see a vigorous older person, we seem astounded.
We must address this cultural tendency because everyday 10,000 Americans turn 65. This group of individuals is called “the senior tsunami” by the insurance industry. Why? Older patients comprise about 27% of all doctor’s visits and 35% of all hospital stays.
So how is customer service for this age cohort? Multiple studies report ageist issues. One involves communication referred to as “elder speak.” To capture the scene of how this works, let’s imagine your son or daughter has accompanied you to a doctor’s visit. The healthcare provider comes in and…
Raises their voice assuming all older people are deaf or switch to a high pitched voice that resembles baby talk or…
Leaves the patient entirely out of conversations about their own health by talking to their children or caregiver rather than directly to the patient or…
Talk about them as though they are not present in the room!
My personal pet peeve, calling them “honey or sweetheart” rather than by their name.
Family and society at large are also guilty. Universally, older adults hate “elder speak.” Like everybody else, they do not like to be talked down to, treated without respect or discounted.
Next is dismissing the aches and pains of an older patient by lumping them into the category labeled “normal signs of aging.” When proper treatment is not initiated, patients are forced to convince themselves that what they’re feeling is “just part of aging.” The danger is missed opportunities to completely evaluate the complaint through additional testing or offering solutions through the use of medications, lifestyle changes, or relationship and home situation evaluation that might be beneficial.
More serious is under or over treatment. Younger patients with the same complaint as an elder might get an aggressive diagnostic workup; whereas the symptom might be chalked up to aging in the senior. Expectations for a senior’s ability to recover might also be diminished. For older adults who are still in good health, this may discourage more aggressive treatment their body could handle.
No one is at their best when ill. The problem is compounded with hospitalization or referral to a new specialist who doesn’t know our normal behavior from behavior common to certain disease states. Older individuals are also more vulnerable to medication side effects, infections and delirium. These factors can impede a clear diagnosis. Having someone accompany you, who knows you well can be enormously helpful.