Key takeaways in this post:

  • Ageism, or bias against older people, is widespread.
  • Due to ageism, doctors may spend less time with older patients. They may also dismiss symptoms.
  • Healthcare marketers can fight ageism. They can do this by seeing implicit biases and being mindful of language.

Q. What group faces bias and negative stereotypes? Yet, we all want to join someday.

A. Older people. Seniors. Elderly. Geriatrics. Blue hairs. Codgers. Over-the-hill crowd. These are a few monikers used to describe older adults. Others aren’t fit to publish. Many people hold biases against older people. But marketers can shape how marketing, branding and media portray them. We also need to be aware of the harm ageism in healthcare can cause to older adults.

Over the years, attitudes and awareness about the following issues have improved:

  • Sexism
  • Racism
  • Ableism
  • LGBTQIA discrimination

But ageism has become more widespread during the pandemic. As the COVID-19 crisis worsened, some people viewed older adults as disposable and not worth protecting. Today, ageism is still a prevalent issue worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that 1 in 2 people are ageist against older adults. So, what can we do about it? The first step is understanding the issue and why it’s a problem.

Ageism is our society’s accepted ideas about old age that portrays aging and older people in stereotypical, often negative, ways. It makes assumptions about someone based only on their age.

Assumptions often include these factors:

  • Cognitive and physical activities
  • Goals
  • Interests
  • Preferences
  • Tastes

As with other prejudices, ageism overlooks the uniqueness of each person. By painting everyone with the same brush, ageism makes the members of this group invisible. When a society accepts this bias, it sees the group as less human or less valuable. This can lead to the following consequences:

  • Disregard
  • Oppression
  • Isolation
  • Abuse

The golden years don’t sound that golden for many older adults who experience ageist attitudes. Ageism has negative consequences for all of society, not just older adults.

When we devalue older adults, we block their contributions and participation in these areas:

  • The workplace
  • The economy
  • The culture
  • Relationships

We should embrace all types of diversity. This includes all ages. It makes us better, smarter, stronger, more creative and richer in many ways.

Healthcare is the arena where ageism may do the greatest harm. And the research on ageism in healthcare is grim. One study shows health professionals spend less time with older patients.

They may also dismiss the following symptoms as part of getting old:

  • Anxiety
  • Brain fog
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Pain

They see them as unavoidable due to aging. So, they don’t look for causes or provide treatment. Healthcare professionals are also less likely to involve older patients in decisions. This is because explaining the options can take more time.

The reverse, too much treatment, is also an issue. Older adults often have to endure the following procedures or treatments that may do more harm than good:

  • Tests
  • Surgeries
  • Medications

Overtreatment involves many factors. But better conversations are essential to solving them.

Internalized ageism also causes harm. It can lead to the following outcomes:

  • Undertreatment
  • Poor health
  • Shorter lives

Studies show that people who have negative feelings about aging are less likely to seek healthcare.

They’re also less likely to adopt the following healthy habits:

  • Quitting tobacco
  • Exercising
  • Eating healthy

Research shows having negative views about growing older may lead to an earlier death by 7.5 years.

With ageism so entrenched in healthcare and the culture, it can seem overwhelming to advocate for change. But as healthcare marketers and content creators, we can bring age bias awareness to the forefront. We can make a difference. Here are six steps to be part of the solution.

1. Recognize implicit age bias

We all may be unaware of our prejudices about older people or aging. Implicit bias is unconscious. It involves automatic preferences for certain groups. Researcher Laura Allen, Ph.D., describes ageism as more invisible than other types of bias. “All of us know older people, so we tend to be less aware of our prejudice,” Allen said. “It feels more acceptable, less hostile or judgmental than other types of bias. But we know how harmful these stereotypes can be to older adults and our future selves.”

Awareness is a good first step. The Harvard Implicit Association Test can reveal attitudes and stereotypes we didn’t think we held. And it takes only a few minutes.

2. Watch our language

As healthcare communicators, what are we supposed to call older people? The Washington University in St. Louis’ Institute for Public Health has a great resource. It includes a list of what’s cool and what’s not cool to say. Semantics is as essential as accuracy. And the language we use can evolve, as it does for other groups that experience discrimination.

People are living longer than ever before. Yet, people often consider it a problem or burden rather than a triumph. Human life expectancy has doubled in a century. Author Steven Johnson (and others) regard that as humanity’s greatest achievement!

The Gerontological Society of America has a toolkit available on its website. It includes a guide to help healthcare communicators use terms that frame aging and older people in a positive way.

Pro tip: Grey tsunami isn’t a preferred term. Don’t talk about Americans living longer and healthier lives in a negative way.

3. Distinguish between the realities of aging and ageism

We need to share info about health and healthcare for older adults. The reality is that health challenges like hearing loss and memory issues may occur as we age.

Older people are also at a higher risk for the following conditions:

  • Arthritis
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes

But those deficits and diseases don’t happen to everyone — and not at the same age. Make sure your content reflects that range of experience, being careful not to assume every 65 or 85-year-old is alike.

For instance, a person may experience a loss of taste sensation in later years. Content about eating a low-sodium diet should go beyond “cutting back on salt.” It should include info on adding flavor to food in other ways. When covering senior housing or memory loss, address the older adult. Don’t address the caregiver. Here’s an example of what to say and not to say:

  • Say: “If you experience problems such as…”
  • Don’t say: “If your loved one is experiencing…”

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid toolkit gives you more points to consider. Use them when preparing material for older adults. Low health literacy crosses all generations. So, make your content easy to understand and remember.

Jenelen Dulemba has worked in aging for more than 30 years. She runs a hospital program for older adults and trains volunteers in aging sensitivity. She points out, “Humans are most alike at birth. We spend our lifetimes becoming less similar. That’s a lot of diversity.”

The key to avoiding stereotypes is to respect people as individuals. You also need to understand the changes affecting older adults. Positive content recognizes differences. It doesn’t patronize and is easy to understand. This is as important for an older audience as it is for other generations.

4. Make your marketing inclusive and diverse

Allen found that media usually shows older people in two extremes. They show them as healthy, happy retirees or frail, sick older people. Allen said one thing we can do in marketing materials is to include older people. This includes portraying them in a diverse way.

Healthcare marketers and journalists could benefit from training to avoid ageism. Allen co-authored an article in The Gerontologist. It’s about her study of newspaper coverage of COVID-19 in long-term care settings.
She looked at 54 articles published by major newspapers from Jan. 21 to May 8, 2020. None quoted a long-term care resident.

Instead, journalists used the family members’ voices instead of residents’. This diminished the experience of the most affected. The lesson here is to reflect the full spectrum of human experience.

We need to consider the way we use the following assets:

  • Words
  • Images
  • Stories
  • Sources

We also need to be more creative and diverse in our marketing. The content will be fresher, more real and reach an audience that may have felt excluded.

5. Embrace technology and digital communication

It’s a common misconception that older adults aren’t tech-savvy. Research shows they’re embracing technology.

They use digital communication to complete the following tasks:

  • Connect with loved ones.
  • Get information.
  • Shop for products and services.
  • Manage their healthcare.

We need to recognize this trend and adapt our strategies.

Use the following digital channels to provide valuable information to older adults:

  • Social media
  • Email
  • Online ads

We can also use technology to improve the patient experience. For example, telemedicine allows for virtual appointments.

This provides the following benefits:

  • Convenience
  • Cost savings
  • Reduced risk of exposure to illness

We also need to make our website and digital channels easy to use.

Do this by using the following features:

  • Clear navigation
  • Larger font sizes
  • Options for audio output

This makes it easier for older adults to access healthcare without leaving home.

6. Dig deeper

We’re passionate about ending ageism in healthcare.

If you are, too, here are four resources to explore:

When you partner with WG Content, you get a team of savvy content creators. We can create compelling, compassionate communications for any audience. Learn how we can help you reach your marketing goals. Send us a message today.

Here are three examples of ageism in healthcare:

  • Assuming older adults don’t understand modern technology and not providing digital options for communication or appointment scheduling
  • Disregarding the concerns or symptoms of older patients.
  • Stereotyping older adults as less active, healthy or capable of making decisions about their healthcare.

They can learn about the impact of ageism on patients. They should also stay up to date on the best practices for giving fair care to older adults.

Ageism can make older adults feel the following emotions:

  • Worthlessness
  • Isolation
  • Loneliness

This can lead to less access to healthcare resources, worsen existing conditions or create new ones.

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