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This site is for student nurses or nurses starting out. Letters to a Young Nurse are blog posts written like letters to help you find your way and make your journey as a nurse less difficult. 



Updated: Aug 24, 2023

Let's talk about ageism and the effect it can have on your older patients.

Ageism is the stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination against people based on their age. Any time an older adult is talked down to, ignored or made to feel that their opinion is not necessary by medical professionals there is ageism. Studies have shown that ageism has a negative effect on health and well-being. Negative attitudes towards older persons contributes to an increased risk of death, poor functional health, slower recovery from illness, and poor mental health. Ageism by medical professional's results in less medical information provided, withholding of treatment options and exclusion from clinical trials. Ageism also can result in symptoms like depression, anxiety, worry and sadness being overlooked as a normal part of aging.

(Burnes et al, 2019)

Ageism can be categorized into 3 groups according to a University of Michigan poll:

  1. Ageist messages

  2. Interpersonal interactions

  3. Internalized ageism

82% of persons 50-80 polled reported regularly experiencing at least one form of everyday ageism in their daily lives. Two in five older adults reported experiencing three or more forms of everyday ageism in their daily lives and those people had worse physical and mental health than those who reported fewer forms of ageism. Older persons exposed to high levels of ageism have more chronic health conditions like diabetes, heart disease and depression. Everyday ageism is prevalent.

Positive views on aging ​

Older adults who have positive views on aging report fewer forms of everyday ageism and better physical and mental health​. Those who agreed with all four positive views of aging were more likely to report being in better health​. And those that who had positive views of aging reported that their mental health was excellent or very good​. Developing interventions to combat ageism is a critical component of healthy aging.​

Burnes et al (2019) conducted a study to find the best interventions to combat ageism.​

They looked at 63 studies between 1976-2018 on interventions to stop and prevent ageism.​

Reducing ageism can promote positive health behaviors among older persons​.

The best interventions were:​

  1. Education of professionals and the general public: speaking up when ageism is seen and felt​.

  2. Fostering contact between older persons and younger people: exposure of young persons to older persons to improve perceptions.​

  3. Combination of both: education and exposure​

How can this be done: volunteering at schools, taking care of grandchildren, speaking up when ageism is prevalent.​ Ask for second opinion. Ask questions at medical appointments. Ask questions about medications and treatment options.​ Don’t accept that old age means poor health. ​​And as a nurse or healthcare professional remember to ask and question the patient, if possible, not the friend, family member or spouse. Direct your conversation towards the patient and only ask others if you cannot get appropriate responses from the patient. When I was admitting or treating an older person, I would take the family member into another room and ask if the answers were appropriate. Sometimes the older adult with cognitive difficulties can make up appropriate and believable answers. Double checking answers in a quiet and respectful manner is okay.

Facts about Aging​

Life expectancy in 2019

78.8 years for total US population which is an increase of 1 month from 2018.​

Males: 76.3 years​

Females: 81.4 years​

The difference between men and women is 5.1 years​.

Leading causes of death:

  1. Heart disease

  2. Cancer

  3. Unintentional injury (Medication errors)

  4. Chronic respiratory diseases

  5. Stroke​

  6. Alzheimer's (but 5th leading cause of death for person over 65)

  7. Diabetes

  8. Kidney disease

  9. Flu or pneumonia

  10. Suicide​

I tell you all of this to explain that ageism kills. If a physician ignores the older adult patient and talks only to family, they are missing out on a great deal of information. I saw it on television yesterday. A show called Hospital which is filmed in some of the busiest hospital emergency rooms in London, England. A woman in her late 80's was brought in because her daughter could not wake her up that morning. The patient, Mabel had been undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. Now she had developed a severe lung infection and would have to be admitted to the hospital. The daughter, Clare, wanted Mum to finish her chemotherapy treatments in the hospital. But Mabel wanted to stop and go home. Then the questions about a Do Not Resuscitate order was discussed with Mabel and Clare. Mabel was adamant in her desire to have a DNR and to die peacefully at home. Clare blew a gasket when she heard her Mum say those words. How dare she give up!!!!Then the questions about a Hospice referral pushed Clare over the edge. Clare screamed and shouted and made the conversation end. The doctors took Clare's wishes above Mabel, the patient!!! Because Mabel was older, she must not understand the consequences of hospice and a DNR. Because she had endured round after round of debilitating chemotherapy she must not be in her right mind. Clare shouted the loudest but refused to listen to her mother because the war on cancer was still waging. Mabel had to fight because if she didn't then Clare would be alone. What about what Mabel wanted? I saw it so many times in hospice. Family members holding on so tightly that they could not let go even when the patient is pleading to be let go. Ageism is real and goes against patient centered care.

What can you do today to stop Ageism in your family, your community, your facility, your hospital?

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