No need to treat that [insert ailment here]. You’re old!

Primary Source:  Amanda Toler Woodward, July 7, 2016

It would be great to say that ageism has been conquered among the professionals who work with and for older adults, but the stories I’ve heard and read about make my toes curl and my blood pressure spike.

Some of the most common complaints include:

  • talking about the person as if they aren’t in the room,
  • directing questions about symptoms to a family member rather than the older adult who is experiencing the symptoms,
  • explaining less about what’s going on than they would to a younger person,
  • not taking complaints seriously (they’re old after all), and
  • using baby talk (oversimplifying, using childish vocabulary, speaking in a higher pitched voice).

No wonder we have a picture of old people as crabby.  You get what you sow.

Still, people who work in some capacity in the field of aging (myself included) deal with the same stereotypes and lazy shortcut thinking as everybody else.  In some respect, it’s how our brains work to catalog and process the huge amounts of complicated information we receive all day long.  It helps us react without having to think about every little thing.  If I step in enough puddles, I learn that puddles lead to wet feet and I step over or around them without thinking about it.  (Well, most of the time).

Here’s a newsflash. People aren’t puddles.

A puddle is always wet, but if you’ve met one old person you’ve met one old person as the saying goes.  The problem is, our shortcuts about groups of people are largely manufactured, or as us sociological types like to say “socially constructed”.  They are fed to us – sometimes unconsciously, sometimes purposefully – by our parents, our peers, the media, and people in power.  They’re not real, but we take them for fact and – presto magico! – aging is equivalent with mental and physical decline, illness, disengagement from the world, and so on.

The irony is that ageism, like other -isms, is bad for our health and leads to some of that very decline we assume must come with growing older.  We internalize negative stereotypes about age and then act in ways that make them come to pass.  We encounter  stressful ageist comments and acts on a daily basis and ongoing stress is bad for us.

Ageism in health care can be even more deadly.  We don’t receive the same level of care as a younger person who has the same prognosis because they are a “bigger save”. Sometimes we don’t receive treatment because of course we’re sick, we’re old.  And so those health professionals who are supposed to do no harm, might actually be killing us.  Not intentionally, but effectively all the same.

As professionals, older adults, and innocent bystanders we can fight ageism in part by paying attention to the way we interact with each other.  Notice when we’re doing the baby talk thing, stop it, and maybe even apologize.  Make our doctors take the time to answer our questions and address our concerns – it’s their job and our health.  Call out people when we witness them being ageist (or racist or sexist or homophobic or . . . . ).

What ageist encounters have you had with professionals?  And how did you react to them?  Share your tips and tricks and stories here.

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Amanda Toler Woodward
Amanda Toler Woodward is an associate professor in the MSU School of Social Work. Her goal is to share reflections on a wide range of topics related to aging research, social work, academia, and whatever else catches her fancy.
Amanda Toler Woodward

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