Fighting Ageism in Health Care

Posted by Anthony Cirillo on April 3, 2018
“Discrimination on the basis of age is as unacceptable as discrimination on the basis of any other aspect of ourselves that we cannot change.” - Ashton Applewhite

My passion for seniors was ignited when I sang for residents at a senior community some 26 years ago. It was life-changing and educational. As I learned more about the assisted living industry and activities in senior centers, I came to find that most places followed a similar playbook. The calendars were filled with bingo - lots of bingo - live entertainment, and other activities such as gardening, but little else. While these still remain important for residents today, the face of the assisted living resident has changed. I was reminded of this recently when I wrote a blog post about gardening for seniors. One senior reader noted that, while the article was informative, it was not for him; he was hitting the weight room later that day!

This resonated with me. I myself am 60 and have a weight routine! And while I do enjoy yard work, I don’t particularly enjoy gardening. Yet, we often pigeon-hole society’s view of older people. Senior activities can be so much more than bingo. It can be yoga, weight lifting, or using Facebook! 

When our ideas of “activities for seniors” are limited by stereotypes of older adults, that is ageism.

When younger people tell their health care provider they are experiencing pain, a team jumps into action. When an older person expresses his or her pain, it is often chalked up to being older. That is ageism.

Talking slowly and loudly, or assuming someone can’t comprehend what you are telling them, is a common behavior around senior citizens. That is ageism.

Problems with Age Discrimination in Health and Social Care

Ageism in healthcare can be especially dangerous for seniors. A physician’s prejudice against aging adults can lead to a poorer level of treatment for seniors. An example this is when a doctor has lower expectations for a senior’s ability to recover and adjusts treatment plans accordingly. For older adults in good health, this caution by physicians could mean not getting the treatment they need and that their body can still handle. 

Depression can sometimes be misdiagnosed as dementia. People can be overlooked for preventive measures such as routine screenings because of physicians' beliefs about the course of normal aging. These expectations give seniors a negative stigma in the health care industry and can even become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Tips for Health and Social Care Workers

A lot of ageist behaviors may not be intentional and will take conscious efforts to identify and change. To get you started, here are some ways to stop ageism from occurring in the health and social care industries:

  • Understand a person’s functional ability. Not every older person has a hearing problem, so don’t raise your voice unless it’s appropriate. Don’t ”dumb things down” if it’s not necessary. Try not to repeat yourself unless there is a clear comprehension issue. There are many senior citizens, even those with dementia and other conditions, who are still mentally sharp, so respect their abilities.
  • Acknowledge the family caregiver, but talk to the senior. It is easy for a care provider to talk to a family caregiver when present and ignore the senior, even referring to them in the third person as if they are not in the room. Do your best to keep everyone involved in conversations.
  • Know your patient/resident. There are tools in the marketplace like the Living History Program, which can help you better understand a person’s life story. The more you know, the less likely you will be to stereotype.
  • Examine your culture. Institutionalized ageism took decades to evolve so rolling it back will take time. Start by revamping your training and orientation to address ageism both in the workforce and toward residents and patients. 
Tips for Aging Adults

Ageism isn’t only displayed through behaviors toward seniors, but can be an attitude that is internalized by people of any age group. It is important to develop a positive attitude about aging. In fact, when you do, researchers say it can add almost eight years to your life

Embrace your age no matter how old you are. Cathy Bollinger, Managing Director of Embracing Aging York County (PA) Community Foundation challenged others to do the following at a recent Caregiver Summit: Stand in front of a mirror, say your real age, and declare, “I am the perfect age for me today!” 

Check your own attitudes when it comes to older people. Do you make blanket assumptions or do you get to know the person as an individual? 

Want to really shatter your stereotypes? Volunteer at a senior center, independent living community or an assisted living community. 

Ageism is a Two-Way Street

Ironically, young people can experience ageism too. A 30-year-old who looks younger may be perceived as not having enough experience for certain jobs or looked over for a promotion. That is why talking about ageism with younger people is important. It will help them as they age and their relationships with older people will improve as well. Perhaps that will lead to less age discrimination in the workforce. When you see the value of a person, rather than the stereotype of an age group, things change for the better. 

Ageism impacts society at all levels. It effects how communities plan. It impacts careers people choose. Often younger people are discouraged to pursue careers having to do with aging for something “sexier.” Older people should be viewed as mentors and sages. They are in many other cultures. Yet often in the U.S., we see them as liabilities. 

As we start to examine our attitudes around ageism, it’s never too early to start thinking about growing older. As Teddy Roosevelt said: “Old age is like everything else. To make a success of it, you've got to start young.” 

Anthony Cirillo, FACHE, ABC is a health and aging expert and President of The Aging Experience. Contact him at

ageism in health care