I have a new affection for Merritt, BC. My family spent five days there over the holidays not out of design, but because my mother became very ill while we were in the Okanagan. However, this is not a column about my family’s holiday misadventures or my admiration for small-town hospitality and friendliness, but the very real and serious issue of ageism in the healthcare profession that should matter to us in Squamish, as everywhere else. Let me explain.
Upon our arrival in Naramata, we discovered my mom was disoriented and wobbly. We thought she might be having a stroke or some other serious medical emergency, so I brought her immediately to the local hospital. The ER was not busy so she was seen quickly. Her faculties were assessed, blood was drawn and a urine sample taken. The doctor thought her co-ordination, coherence and walking were fine. I told him she was unsteady and confused compared to her usual state. He shrugged and said she seemed OK, but ordered a CT scan just to make sure.
On our way to the CT scan, mom fell in the bathroom and security needed to open the door so I could help her. Somehow this did not raise concerns with the doctors. The CT scan didn’t indicate any brain bleeds or stroke so the doctor told us we could go home. I was stunned as I expected them to continue with further tests so we could get to the bottom of my mom’s illness. The ER doctor shrugged and insinuated she was just an old lady with old lady problems.
That night mom was incontinent and still confused in the morning, so we headed back immediately to Squamish to get her medical attention closer to home. We made it to Merritt when she started talking word salad and was unable to walk.
The medical team at the Nicola Valley Regional Hospital did not dismiss her as just another old lady but took her symptoms very seriously. She was triaged, admitted to emergency immediately where they ordered a battery of tests and cultures, and put her into isolation. It turns out mom had severe influenza, pneumonia and a word salad, hallucination-inducing urinary tract infection.
As I told a friend (who is a healthcare professional) about this experience she explained how rampant ageism, both explicit and implicit, is in the medical profession, so much so that it can have a profound influence on the care offered and received and how accurately and sensitively normal changes associated with
aging are distinguished from acute illness and chronic disease.
The systematic stereotyping and discrimination against people because they are old is a serious detriment to healthcare. A first step is to recognize the heterogeneity of older adults; their medical issues are not all the same nor simply a consequence of being old.
They deserve to be treated fairly and without prejudice.