In our view: Respect for Elders

Health care for older Americans will languish until shameful attitudes toward them change

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It’s certainly no secret that the population of the United States is aging, or that the nation’s health care demands will be significantly altered in the coming years because of this trend.

Still, a recent article from reporter Paris Achen of The Columbian provided some eye-opening details of the situation.

Consider:

• An average of 10,000 people reach the age of 65 each day, according to the Social Security Administration.

• Nationally, there is one geriatrician per 2,600 people age 75 and older, according to the American Geriatrics Society. By 2030, that is expected to reach a ratio of 1-to-3,800, twice what is considered the acceptable number.

• Relatively few people entering medical professions pursue geriatric care. For example, last year two out of 97 graduates from the Family Medicine of Southwest Washington residency program at Vancouver’s PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center specialized in geriatrics.

These numbers illuminate a growing problem, and it’s a problem that likely will affect everybody on one level or another. For people already requiring geriatric care, the issue is one of immediate concern. For their children, ensuring adequate care for mom and dad can generate emotional and financial concerns. For young adults, visions of how the health care system will look in 40 or 50 years might not be an immediate issue, but it will be someday.

Americans are living longer and living healthier than ever before, and adequate care for seniors can make a quality-of-life difference that can have a decades-long impact. In Clark County, the number of residents age 90 or older saw an 85 percent increase between 2000 and 2010.

The reasons for a lack of geriatric care, as described by experts quoted by Achen, are numerous and varied. Care providers who specialize in gerontology often make less money than those in other fields, in part because seniors primarily rely upon Medicare to pay for their health care, and Medicare reimbursements typically are much lower than those from private insurance. In addition, the work can be demanding and often thankless.

Those issues can be addressed through policy changes. But perhaps the most disconcerting factor in the lack of care for seniors is one that only can be altered through a shift of cultural mores.

Described in the article as a “cultural phobia of old age,” it reflects a shortcoming in our societal values and a lack of basic empathy for older adults.

“We live in a society that is pretty anti-aging,” said Cory Bolkan, assistant professor of human development at Washington State University Vancouver. “Think about the products that are aimed at fighting aging. There is a very negative stigma attached to getting old.”

Graham Rowles, president of the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education and a professor at the University of Kentucky, said research has shown that younger people tend to have a negative view of older people, “But when you ask about their grandparents, their view is very positive.”

For generations, Americans’ views of aging adults has ranged from embarrassing to shameful. All too often, the elderly are shunned in our youth-oriented culture, treated as though their time has passed. Meanwhile, thousands of middle-aged adults are spending millions of dollars on products designed to recapture or prolong their youth.

Until such attitudes are altered — and this would require a profound societal change — the issue of adequate geriatric care will continue to be a problem. Until younger adults learn to embrace the inherent value of older adults, along with the knowledge and experiences they can impart, our nation’s health care will continue reflect poorly upon our values.