21 Nov Age Has Reached its Use-by Date
What would happen if, at our next doctor’s visit, birth dates were scrapped from our medical records? Would we be treated differently?
The question was posed by an expert on ageing and ageism, Ashton Applewhite, this week – but she had the answer handy. Almost definitely.
Treating symptoms as “inevitable” in advanced age, rather than treating conditions, could lead to misdiagnosis, she said. Serious interventions such as CPR, transplants, chemotherapy and dialysis were not age-dependent – and more and more 80- and 90-year-olds were surviving open-heart surgery at rates equal to much younger patients.
“Wouldn’t it be great if physicians had to assess and prescribe based on each person’s physical and mental condition, free of bias about which symptoms were likely to crop up at a given age of life and which were ‘worth treating’?’’ she says in her book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto against Ageism.
Applewhite’s take – that ageism is wrong alongside racism and sexism – is a welcome antidote to the blame being laid at the feet of older Australians by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.
The Treasurer’s comments – that our aged are an “economic time bomb” and now being encouraged to work longer to keep the ship steady – show a disregard for those whose hard work has helped build our economy. But it also entrenches ageist stereotypes. We need to start looking at ageing differently.
Just take these facts:
- About 65 per cent of those aged over 65 have no limitation in major activities.
- Brain imaging, at the age of 80, shows frontal lobe changes that improve our ability to deal with negative emotions such as anger, envy and fear. “Olders experience less social anxiety, and fewer social phobias,’’ Applewhite says.
- Serious mental decline is not a normal part of ageing, most forgetfulness is not Alzheimer’s and 20 per cent of people in their 90s escape cognitive decline entirely. Dementia rates are also actually falling.
- Those aged 85 are more likely to be happier than a 35-year-old. Just one study used by Applewhite – of two million people from 80 nations – showed this: “Whether rich or poor, single or married, child-free or fertile, people were most miserable in middle age and happiest in childhood and at the ends of their lives,” she says.
An “attractiveness penalty” was the result of women being judged more harshly than men for “looking old”.
And our language can be at fault too. Fixed retirement, for example, is a ridiculous notion – even, it seems, to Josh Frydenberg.
When did it become so shameful to grow old? Why are we seen as weaker, and treated as more vulnerable? According to science, we even start to believe it.
Applewhite gives the example of a social experiment where university students were primed with negative age stereotypes “by having them unscramble sentences that included words like forgetful, Florida and bingo”. Afterwards, the students started walking away “measurably more slowly”. “Steps slowed simply because a subliminal script said it was time to totter,” she says.
We actively engage in debates about spending money on old people, when it could be redirected to children. But, she asks, imagine a similar debate on race or sex? It would never happen.
Applewhite’s message attacks directly the claim that we’ll be swamped by older people as baby boomers age. “Another way to look at it is that by 2020 there’ll be one older adult for every child – far better for the children’s welfare than the inverse, when birth rates and infant mortality were high.”
The Royal Commission has already shown how little, as a community, we value a few grey hairs. What would happen if we flipped the debate, and reassessed how we dealt with ageing personally, and in a public sense?
What if we saw advanced years as something to be valued, not dismissed; something to be heard and not hidden; something that will lead to physical decline but not inevitable poor health?
We need to check our own biases, too, I discovered on my daily run – well, it’s more like a slow drunken stagger – yesterday morning.
Someone ran by me. “You’re doing really well,’’ he offered. For a woman? For a Caucasian? Or for a 50-year-old? Thank you, I huffed.
Madonna King was In Conversation with Ashton Applewhite at Griffith University’s Integrity 20 conference on Tuesday night.
Madonna King is a leading journalist and commentator. An award-winning presenter of 612 ABC Brisbane, she has authored 12 books and now works across radio, television and online.