The practice of medicine is supremely ageist

This one is personal.

In helping take care of my mom during several of her bouts with stuff over the 10 years she lived in Vancouver, each time we ended up in hospital – and it was often, alas, in part because I think my mom loved the attention from the emergency responders, who were always terrifically kind to her – I was struck each time with how ageist her young caregivers were.

And with each new young resident – often arriving in gangs of three or more; my mother was clearly a patient to study – who was evidently dismissing her as simply another corpse-in-waiting, I wanted to grab him (and, I hate to add, just as often it was a her or a they), and yell at them, “All you see is a sick, old woman who looks ghastly but you have no idea how vital and how smart this woman is when she is well, and if you just get her together again, which you can do for sure – I am a doctor, after all, and I know she can recover from this with appropriate care – you will be blown away that she’s way smarter than you are.”

And in fact, over the years, I had several residents tell me, after my mom had recovered and had started directing them as to what to do, “I had no idea your mother was this bright.”

“No, you didn’t”, I wanted to say but never did, “cuz you really weren’t listening to her”.

So what I learned over and over again with my mom (and alas, soon to be me, too) is what I said earlier: Medicine is supremely ageist because hospitals (and I am largely referring here to hospital-based medical practice) is run by young residents and fellows, whose only examples of old people are either their grandparents (whom they long ago stopped listening to) or much more often, old patients who are indeed very sick, many of whom don’t recover.

So they treat every old person the same: As potential corpses whom they seldom really listen to.

An outstanding example of this lack of empathy was the young resident who once tried to get my mom to reverse a do-not-resuscitate order in her chart: He was incredibly brutal in his description of what would happen to her should she get CPR, and he left my very hard mom – a woman who was a Holocaust survivor and who had faced down countless hardships in her life – devastated and crying intensely.

Anyway, all of this is a preamble to telling you about a recent study that concluded that the further young medical students go into their medical careers, the less empathy they show.

Interestingly, this researcher also concluded that students enrolled in osteopathic schools, in which they also deal with patients, of course, did not show a similar drop-off in empathy as they went along.

Unfortunately, I doubt this ageism will ever be overcome.

So the only way to deal with it, if you’re old, is to try to make sure you have someone around who can help you negotiate with the young staff who will have your life in their hands.