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Getting Rid of Ageist Ideas

By Matt Narrett, M.D., Chief Medical Officer for Erickson Senior Living
March 21, 2022
man in contemplative posture

Do you think 30-year-olds or 90-year-olds have higher life satisfaction? Interestingly enough, studies across the globe show that seniors have more life satisfaction than young adults.

Many of us find this surprising because we live in a society that places high value on youth, and thus we assume younger age groups must be happier. While not intentional, the preference for youthful attributes often results in negative attitudes toward seniors - commonly referred to as ageism.

What is ageism?

Ageism is a widely present form of social prejudice, yet it goes overlooked. Like race and gender bias, ageism is based on misconceptions and stereotypes; for example, the all-too-common view that older adults are frail, grumpy, and difficult to deal with. A recent national poll revealed that 82% of seniors have experienced ageism, with 65% experiencing ageist messages in the media alone.

Ageism also occurs in health care, with 20% of Americans ages 50 and older experiencing discrimination in medical settings. Doctors can be less patient, less respectful, and less involved in the care of elders. They may inadvertently treat a senior like a child, using overly simplistic language or a loud tone of voice.

Improper treatment

Age bias may impact treatment decisions in the health care setting as well. Some providers may attribute certain symptoms to aging rather than considering all the possibilities; other providers may not be aware that seniors and younger adults can have the same disease but with very different symptoms.

Ageism may be a factor in the underdiagnoses of depression in older patients. A provider may think that it’s normal for an 85-year-old to experience lack of appetite, sleeping difficulties, or loss of interest in activities. But the same provider would likely be more concerned if they had a younger patient with similar symptoms.

Increasing awareness

Fortunately, the growing awareness of ageism in health care is resulting in positive reform. In 2021, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) was revised to remove “old age” or “aging” as a cause of disease.

Thousands of professionals are developing age-friendly health systems that prioritize the “4 Ms” of geriatric care: mobility, medications, mentation, and what matters to the patient.

Medical schools are increasingly integrating geriatrics into their curricula, and the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the Associated Press are establishing policies to remove age bias in communications and publications.

Acknowledge the positives

Remarkably enough, seniors can also contribute to ageism as many have held ageist perspectives about themselves throughout their later years. Self-deprecating comments such as “I’m over the hill” or “I’m having a senior moment” are socially acceptable forms of ageism that perpetuate the myth that seniors are less capable.

Freeing yourself from ageist thoughts may also help you experience better personal health and well-being. Research shows that people who hold ageist beliefs tend to participate less in healthful activities and, as a result, have higher rates of cardiovascular disease and memory impairment.

Please take a moment and reflect on the many positives, such as greater resilience and higher life satisfaction that seniors can and do experience.