Reader comments on Wednesday's blog post, Cancer, Chemo or Old Age?, turned it into a much more important story that it could otherwise be. There are at least half a dozen topics those comment suggest but let's go with ageism in healthcare today.
Ageism among health care providers is a well-known phenomenon. As reported at the website of the American Society of Aging,
”The geriatrician and writer Dr. Louise Aronson (2015) describes a disturbing example of explicit ageism in which a surgeon asks the medical student observing his case what specialty she is thinking of pursuing.
“When she answers, 'Geriatrics,' the surgeon immediately begins mimicking an older adult complaining about constipation in a high-pitched whine.”
You know, if you do things like that often enough, they become commonplace and people soon believe them. But of the many ways some physicians and other healthcare workers can and do demean elders, ignoring them is near the top.
Another Dee had this to say on Wednesday's post:
”I may not be correct, and I don't think I am paranoid, but I really think that they see my age on the chart, the white hair on my head, and not the human being seated in front of them.”
She's not wrong. I know. I've been there.
Six months or so before my pancreatic cancer diagnosis, I went to my then primary care physician about a bunch of seemingly unrelated symptoms including neon-orange urine. It practically glowed in the dark, so you'd think that alone would alert a doctor.
But noooo. He kept typing at his computer as I answered his questions and after seven minutes of this, he got up to leave saying something close to, “I'm sure it's a simple virus. You'll be fine soon.” And he left the room.
Huh? I fired him that day and began my search for a more attentive doctor.
Several TGB readers didn't use the word “ageism” in their comments but it is certainly what they are talking about. Seventy-two-year-old Judith Darin, an RN who has worked as a hospice nurse and now works at a skilled nursing facility that is, she says, the best place of its kind she has seen.
”What Dee describes about her treatment,” continues Judith, “and how medical people view her, is a reality. And I have been guilty of thinking about patients (and elderly folks in general) in the way that Dee describes.
“But that has changed. As I get to know each of my patients as individuals, and consider all they have been through, and learn to LISTEN, my perceptions have changed.
“When I am in my own doctor's office, if I don't feel like I am being heard and respected, I ask the staff to stop what they are doing, and to listen to me. I am an RN and try to care for my patients in a holistic way, but now I am also a woman in my 70s with white hair.”
Nancy Hutto left this story:
”My sister, who is 84, recently went to the emergency room with heartburn and back and chest pain, after I made the call to 911. The excellent doctors there found an artery 95 percent blocked and inserted a stent.
“This was after a visit 2 weeks earlier to her cardiologist and several months of increasingly debilitating loss of energy, shortness of breath, and risk factors such as diabetes and an autoimmune disease requiring daily prednisone.
“We have excellent health care in the Seattle area but we still need to be squeaky wheels in advocating for ourselves. It is also helpful to have an advocate who will listen and make the decision that an emergency is in progress, even at the risk of a false alarm.”
I'm not up these days for starting a medical ageism protest organization but we can stand up for ourselves. I deliberately decided to do that two years ago when I found my new doctor(s) at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU).
Since then, I've made it a point to find out about the doctors, nurses, medical assistants, schedulers, etc. who are part of my treatment team. We exchange some personal information – whether we have kids, where we live, what we like to do when we're not working and more.
Maybe in the beginning it was a tactic to be sure I get the care I need and am not overlooked. But now it's real. We've become a certain kind of friend to one another.
We joke around and we talk about serious health issues too. Occasionally, even politics.
Some of them read TimeGoesBy so that comes up now and then. They talk about how they deal with the inevitable outcome of treating mostly old people who have a deadly disease. Without ever being sappy, they are all remarkably cheerful and likable people.
What has happened over two years is that we have come to dwell together in that middle ground between service people and friends. They have expertise I don't have – I need them for their professional skills – and I also need their kindness and understanding.
Maybe they need that too and we're both gaining from what I see now as our heartfelt attention to one another.
God knows I could be wrong but I believe that taking the time to get to know these terrific, accomplished people more personally, allows them to see me, the person, and not just my bald head.