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Keywords: Doctor-patient interaction, older patients, elders, e-patients, discrimination, communication, relationship, empathy, nonverbal behavior.
Citation: Graedon J, Graedon, T. Participatory elders. J Participat Med. 2014 Sep 16; 6:e12.
Published: September 16, 2014.
Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

When we were children it was annoying to be treated condescendingly by adults. A pediatrician might say something innocuous like, “and what would we like to be when we grow up?” This well-meaning phrase always made our skin crawl, largely because it was just intended to make small talk.

The worst was when the doctor examining a child spoke not to the child but to the parent, sometimes referring to the youngster in the third person as if he or she weren’t even in the room.

By contrast, a doctor who spoke to us as if we were intelligent and capable of having a meaningful conversation earned our respect and our trust.

Older adults feel the same way about being treated in a patronizing manner. Our friend Deni has been accompanying her elderly mother on doctor visits for the past few years. Even though her mother is alert and intelligent and completely capable of discussing her own health problems, Deni noticed that some doctors tended to talk to Deni about her mother almost as if her mother weren’t there in front of them. Deni has developed a tactic of looking at her mother throughout the consultation, so that the doctor will take the cue and speak directly to her mother.

Judy told us about a different but related peeve: “I am 71 and am in essentially good health. I do not look my age, but the staff in doctors’ offices insist on using my first name and calling me ‘Honey.’ They talk to me like I am a little kid and I don’t like it.”

Older patients have something to tell their health care providers: look at me; listen to me; and speak with me rather than to the person who may have come with me to the visit. Gray hair doesn’t signal senility. Speaking slowly and emphasizing each word could be insulting, unless the patient has requested it.

Health care providers may not expect their older patients to be computer literate or capable of e-patient networking. That ageist stereotype should be discarded. Many older adults are searching online for health information that is relevant to them; others may ask family members or friends for help with this task. But all of them want to be taken seriously, even when they bring printouts from the internet to be reviewed and discussed.

Health care providers who wouldn’t dream of discriminating against women or people of color may need to examine their implicit assumptions about older patients more closely. There is no upper limit on the age for participating actively in health care decisions.

Copyright: © 2014 Joe Graedon and Terry Graedon. Published here under license by The Journal of Participatory Medicine. Copyright for this article is retained by the authors, with first publication rights granted to the Journal of Participatory Medicine. All journal content, except where otherwise noted, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. By virtue of their appearance in this open-access journal, articles are free to use, with proper attribution, in educational and other non-commercial settings.