Aging and the Attitude of Health Care Providers

In many cultures in the world, elderly people are revered and their advice is sought and respected. In our culture, the wisdom, the knowledge and the social skills of the elderly are often overlooked and instead we focus on the mental and physical deficits of our older generation.

Because of this prevailing attitude, older people are generally regarded as less valuable than younger people. The younger person has responsibilities of raising a family, maintaining a career and supporting the economy. The older person generally has no responsibilities and in addition is a drag on the economy since a great part of the tax base must go towards the support of older Americans.

It is inevitable that medical care providers will often have this same attitude towards their older patients. As a result, if an older person has a medical complaint and the cause is not readily apparent, a medical practitioner is more likely to accept the condition as a consequence of old age and treat the symptoms with medication as opposed to aggressively trying to identify the problem. In younger people, if the medical complaint is interfering with normal daily function, typically a more concerted effort will be made to identify and correct the problem.

Many in the health care profession consider old age to be a disease itself. Any medical problems are inappropriately attributed to old age as if it were a medical condition. And since there is no cure for old age, appropriate tests and treatment are never performed. Thus, medical problems that may not be related to age and may just as frequently occur in younger people are often not treated.

Consider the following real-life case as an example of this attitude. A 71 year old woman has surgery on her shoulder for a bone spur that is causing her considerable pain. The surgery is successful and she goes through several months of physical therapy to help her recover. But she is not recovering as expected. She continues to experience pain that radiates through her entire back. Her physical therapist does not know how to help her and attributes her failure to recover to old age.

She visits her family care doctor at least twice over the next six months complaining of extreme tiredness and lack of energy. Her skin color is gray and she does not look healthy. Her doctor tells her that older people don't recover from surgery as quickly and what should she expect at her age. Finally, in frustration, she visits her doctor and insists he check her for some problem since she is not recovering from the surgery and she feels awful.

After her insistence, he does a CBC blood lab and discovers she is severely anemic. He puts her in outpatient care and gives her four units of red blood cells and puts her on iron supplementation. Within two weeks the pain has disappeared and within a month she has recovered fully from the surgery. Numerous tests are done but there is no explanation for the anemia. Six months later she is healthy and active and her cheeks are ruddy.

When she asks her doctor why he did not suspect anemia, he tells her that she has never had anemia and based on her history he would never expect her to develop it. (He has no training in geriatric care.) He then tells her, in an obvious contradiction of his previous position, that older people sometimes fail to absorb iron. Ironically, she defends the action of her doctor and does not feel he acted inappropriately.

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