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How ageism in health care is harming older people — more often than you may think

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Older people spend an average of 21 days a year on medical appointments. That's according to a recent study. And given how much time health care workers spend with older adults, you might think they would be totally in sync regarding needs. But that's not necessarily the case, as Ashley Milne-Tyte reports.

ASHLEY MILNE-TYTE: Kathleen Hayes lives in Chicago and has spent a lot of time lately taking her parents to medical appointments. Both are in their 80s. As she sat in, Hayes has noticed some healthcare workers talk to her parents really loudly.

KATHLEEN HAYES: To the point that my father said to one, I'm not deaf. You don't have to yell.

MILNE-TYTE: Also, she says, while some doctors and nurses address her parents directly, others keep looking at Hayes herself.

HAYES: Their gaze is on me so long that it starts to feel like we're talking around my parents. And so I've had to emphasize, I don't want to speak for my mother. Please ask my mother that question.

MILNE-TYTE: Dr. Louise Aronson is a geriatrician and professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of the book "Elderhood." She says these things are examples of ageism, even if the intent is benign.

LOUISE ARONSON: We all see older people differently. Ageism is a cross-cultural reality. We all start young. And you think of yourself as young, but older people, from the very beginning, are other.

MILNE-TYTE: That tendency to see older adults as other doesn't just result in loud greetings or being called honey while having your blood pressure taken, both of which can dent a person's morale. Aronson says assumptions that older people are one big, frail, homogenous group can cause more serious issues, such as when a patient doesn't receive the care they need because the doctor is seeing a number, not an individual.

ARONSON: You look at the person's age, and you say, ah, you're too old for this, instead of looking at their health and function and priorities.

MILNE-TYTE: She says the problem is most doctors receive little education on older bodies and minds.

ARONSON: At my medical school, we only get two weeks to teach about older people in the four-year curriculum.

MILNE-TYTE: Kris Geerken is co-director of Changing the Narrative, an organization that wants to end ageism. She says research shows that negative beliefs about aging - our own or other people's - are detrimental to our health.

KRIS GEERKEN: It actually can accelerate cognitive decline, increase anxiety, increases depression. It can shorten our lifespans by up to 7 1/2 years.

MILNE-TYTE: Geerken conducts anti-ageism trainings, often over zoom. After this online session for health care workers in January, one participant admitted it's easy for medical staff to fall back on stereotypes when they're feeling the pressure at work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Caregivers are on a routine, and they're in a hurry. And what group two just talked about - that whole idea that the ageism pops up because we're in such a hurry.

GEERKEN: Right. Yeah. It does.

MILNE-TYTE: Liz Schreier used to have a wonderful geriatrician who had ample time for her, but the practice closed. Schreier is 87 and lives in Buffalo. She walks and does yoga. She also has a heart condition and emphysema and spends plenty of time at the doctor's.

LIZ SCHREIER: What I find is a disinterest. I'm not very interesting to them. And I'm one of many - you know, one of those old people again.

MILNE-TYTE: She goes from specialist to specialist, hoping for help with little things that keep cropping up.

SCHREIER: I had a horrible experience with a gastroenterologist who said to me I was old, and he didn't think he wanted to do a scope on me, which was a little insulting.

MILNE-TYTE: But she found one of his colleagues who would. Schrier says what she and her peers are looking for from healthcare workers is kindness and advice on how to stay active and functional, no matter how old they are.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE SONG, "WHAT GOES AROUND...COMES AROUND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ashley Milne-Tyte
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