Most of us limit the concept of prejudice to topics of race. Unfortunately, another type of prejudice is rampant in America, and pervades all aspects of society. It's called ageism. Ageism is generally defined as applying false stereotypes to individuals over a certain age, or a change in the way older people are treated in regard to their competence and value in society.
According to a study performed by the American Medical Association, 25% to 40% of seniors over the age of 65 experience some hearing impairment. Instead of offering treatments and assistive devices such as hearing aids for such hearing loss, many physicians relegate such decreases in ability as, "simply a natural part of getting older."
Ageism and the elderly
Age discrimination is nothing new, but it is a serious issue with senior citizen care these days. From poor treatment in long-term or elderly assisted living facilities to lack of adequate treatment options in medical settings, ageism contributes to depression and lack of self-worth in the elderly.
In a 2001 survey performed by Duke University's Erdman Palmore, PhD, and printed in The Gerontologist (Vol. 41, No. 5), nearly 80% of individuals between the ages of 60 and 80 had experienced some form of ageism. Sad to say, nearly 58% were told jokes designed to make fun of old people. Nearly 31% reported that they were generally ignored or not taken seriously.
"Ageism is about attitude, and attitudes can change with education, familiarity and understanding."
Many seniors and elderly also object to "elder speak," a term that coins the sometimes chronic habit of younger people to call individuals "sweetie" or "dear" or address them in tones, words or phrases that are generally reserved for children. Such terms are often hurtful and belittling to seniors. So are misconceptions that seniors don't know how to use computers, iPods or cell phones.
Such stereotypes are hurtful and damaging. Becca Levy, PhD, psychologist and assistant professor, Yale School of Public Health, studied more than 650 individuals over 50 years of age and found that those burdened by depression caused by ageism lived 7.5 years less than those with a healthy and positive outlook on life. For more information on this study, reference the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 83, No. 2).
What can professionals and lay people do to prevent ageism? Physicians must be aware of the special needs of the elderly and encourage active patient participation. Physicians also need to realize that all symptoms or physical complaints should be addressed as issues separate from the aging process.
Seniors need to take more control over health care treatments and options. Ask questions. Gone are the days when the word of a physician was not to be questioned. Yes, they are trained in their field, but it's one's own body. Health care in the 21st century needs to be in the hands of both medical health care professionals and seniors.
Parents and family caregivers of all types need to encourage positive attitudes toward aging to children in the home. Ageism is about attitude, and attitudes can change with education, familiarity and understanding.
Family caregivers, paid caregiving staff, whether engaged in adult home care, assisted living or nursing home care scenarios need to:
- Ignore stereotypes
- Learn more about the aging process
- Speak out against ageism
- Watch how you speak
- Avoid labeling individuals as "the elderly" or "our seniors"
- Encourage bridging the generation gap at work and home
In addition, changes need to be made in training medical students regarding the elderly. According to the Alliance for Aging Research, "Only five of the nation's 145 medical schools have departments of geriatrics. Only 10% of schools require coursework or rotations in geriatrics and less than 3% of medical students choose to take the courses." The U.S. is behind the times when it comes to merging geriatric care into our health care system.
It's time to change how we view aging in this country. Remember, we'll all be there someday. It's up to us to make a difference now.