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Experts think boomers could take a strong stand against age discrimination in health care. Though people over 50 make up the fastest-growing segment of Canadian society, they still aren't getting the respect they deserve from the medical establishment, a recent report asserts.

Experts think boomers could take a strong stand against age discrimination in health care.

Though people over 50 make up the fastest-growing segment of Canadian society, they still aren't getting the respect they deserve from the medical establishment, a recent report asserts. Released by CARP, the Canadian Association for the Fifty-Plus, Ageism: Aging Without Discrimination finds evidence of "subtle but rampant" discrimination against seniors and concludes that doctors are no less biased than the rest of the population.

"Like racism and sexism, ageism is prejudice or discrimination against a category of people--in this case older people," says American sociologist Erdman Palmore, co-author of the report. "But ageism is different from the other 'isms' in two ways: everyone may become a target of ageism if they live long enough; and many people are unaware of it because it is a relatively new and subtle concept."

Common manifestations of ageism are jokes poking fun at older people--derogatory terms like "geezer" and "crone," and stereotypes painting seniors as predictable, conservative or in physical decline. While these may seem relatively harmless, Palmore believes they have a cumulative effect, giving other members of society license to practise more overt forms of discrimination. "Ageism is like a contagious disease, a virus that spreads," he argues.

Take the scores of jokes about seniors with faulty memories. As Palmore points out, there's nothing funny about seniors being denied jobs or loans as a result of "the stereotype that old people have defective memories."

It could even pose a risk to their health. "Physicians may distrust anything a patient tells them because of the idea that older people can't remember things accurately," Palmore says.

Research contained in the report backs up this assertion. Noting that "ageism in medicine appears to be a reflection of ageist attitudes that exist in society as a whole," the report admonishes the medical establishment for doing little to quarantine itself from dismissive and patronizing attitudes toward seniors.

A majority of physicians believe that most people over 65 live in institutions and that a high percentage of them suffer from dementia, the report says, though "75 per cent of those 85-plus are of sound mind and able to live independently or with a small amount of help." Still, many doctors confer only with their elderly patients' caregivers when making a diagnosis or recommending a course of treatment, and "many diagnostic and therapeutic decisions are based solely on a person's age."

In the average 10-minute consultation, seniors have few opportunities to discuss concerns with their doctors, and face greater delays in diagnosis and treatment. They also suffer from a continued lack of sensitivity to their health-care needs.

On the one hand, many in the medical establishment fail to recognize that older patients react differently to drugs than younger patients. On the other hand, the report says, "health-care providers are often unaware of the body of knowledge that suggests older patients can benefit from treatment to the same extent as young patients"--a situation that it contends is partly due to their exclusion from most medical research.

To counteract these problems, the report suggests that medical curriculums incorporate more material on geriatrics and highlight the positive aspects of aging. It also recommends that clinical trials begin including people over 65.

Though it acknowledges the widespread fear that society won't be able to afford looking after the growing health-care needs of people over 50, the report condemns the accompanying hysteria as both alarmist and ageist. "While they may have different needs, older people will not break the bank."

In her introduction to the report, CARP President Lillian Morgenthau predicts that the issue of ageism will soon come to a head "as boomers make up the greatest aging population in the history of the world." In 2012, the first boomer will turn 65. By 2030, seniors born during the baby boom will comprise one-quarter of Canada's population. "With the impending age quake of their numbers," declares Morgenthau, "...age discrimination could reach crisis proportions."

Ironically, the term "ageism" first appeared in 1968, just as the baby boomers were coming of age and issuing the generational battle cry, "Never trust anyone over 30." Now it is the boomers who will soon find themselves on the receiving end of age discrimination.

"As a dominant force of consumers and voters in our society, they could very well take a stand against ageism because of the sheer weight of numbers," Morgenthau speculates. "In any case, action against ageism must be taken now."

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