By Charlie Fletcher
In our age of inclusivity, diversity, and personal empowerment, no one wants to imagine that ageism continues to be a thing. Nor do we want to accept that ageism is also often accompanied by sexism. However, the stark reality is that both do, indeed, exist in our culture. Gendered ageism is a huge issue.
Most troublingly of all, perhaps, is that the scourge of ageism and sexism persists in the one domain where older women should find themselves feeling the safest and the most protected: the medical industry.
This reality of gendered ageism, unfortunately, can take a devastating toll on the physical and mental health of older women. The good news, however, is that there are tangible steps women and their support networks can take to protect older women’s rights in the medical system and to ensure they receive both the respect and the quality of care they deserve.
(Mis)Understanding the Female Patient
Unconscious bias in the medical industry does not begin when a woman reaches middle age. In fact, research has shown that bias against women persists across the lifespan. This can impact not only the care of female patients but also the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles in the healthcare industry.
This has contributed to a significant and disturbing pattern in which female patients of all ages are more likely to experience misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis than male patients presenting with the same symptoms. Indeed, studies show that physicians are far more likely to dismiss or minimize women’s self-reported pain than the self-reported pain of male patients.
On the one hand, this may be attributed to the unconscious cultural influence of gender stereotypes that hold that women are more likely to be emotional, exaggerate, and even succumb to anxiety and “hysteria.” These stereotypes, in other words, suggest that women’s pain is, more often than not, all in their heads.
It’s not only that prevailing gender stereotypes may both consciously and unconsciously influence a practitioner’s perception of the patient, her complaints, or her needs. Studies have also shown that women are woefully underrepresented in medical research and medical education. Thus, healthcare providers often simply do not have the training or the data to understand how illness impacts women’s bodies differently than men’s.
Ageism Twinning with Sexism: A Perfect Storm
As difficult as it may be for female patients in general to receive the quality of healthcare they need, those challenges amplify as women age. A 2021 report from The Lancet, for example, found that gendered ageism continues to be ubiquitous in the healthcare system.
A significant consequence of ageism in healthcare is the tendency to attribute treatable conditions or significant warning signs of nascent disease as merely the effects of getting older. Further, ageism in healthcare may well lead to the denial of standard treatment protocols. Practitioners may design their treatment plans not on the patient’s needs or values but on the healthcare provider’s ageist assumptions regarding quality of life and longevity.
When you combine the influences of ageism with those of sexism in the medical industry, then it’s not difficult to understand why older women in particular may be subject to inappropriate, poor quality, and biased care.
Mental Health Ramifications
The results of gendered ageism can not only be life-threatening, but they can also have a deeply deleterious impact on women’s mental health. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related to medical events is very real, and it can ravage a patient’s sense of safety, trust, peace, and well-being.
Unfortunately, when your experience of medical care is one in which you are disbelieved, dismissed, or diminished, you will always already be at risk of profound anxiety, stress, and distress. If you then couple this with a misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis, you may well experience the fear and pain of aggressive treatments that might have been avoided with proper and timely care.
What is to Be Done?
As prevalent as gendered ageism may be in the healthcare industry, it does not have to be the destiny of every older woman. Indeed, it is not only possible but older women must learn to advocate for themselves in the medical system.
It begins by preparing yourself to speak up, to be honest, and to assert and, if needed, defend your right to take charge of your own body, your life, and your health and medical choices. After all, you, not your healthcare team, will be the one to live out the consequences of the actions taken and the decisions made in the doctor’s office or hospital room.
It’s also imperative that you do your research and prepare yourself for every clinical encounter. Make lists of questions, symptoms, and concerns. Take a notebook into the office with you and make notes of your conversations with your healthcare provider.
Above all, enlist the support of someone you trust–a spouse, a sibling, a friend. Ensure they’re with you when you see your doctor. Often, your support person will have better recall and understanding of what is said than you will, given the inherent stress of a doctor’s visit. In addition, your support person can advocate for you when you can’t. So keep them involved in your healthcare and ensure they understand your concerns, as well as your wishes.
Sexism and ageism in the medical industry persist, and these can pose a significant threat to the mental and physical health of older women. The good news, though, is that mature women do not have to fall prey to unconscious bias in healthcare. The key is for women to learn to advocate for themselves and, above all, to recognize, embrace, and exercise their right to do so.
Charlie Fletcher is a freelance writer from the lovely “city of trees”- Boise, Idaho. Her love of writing pairs with her passion for social activism and search for the truth. When not writing, she is a part-time wedding planner and spends time with her nephews.