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Talking with Your Older Patient

Healthcare Perceptions About Older Patients

During the past century, the nature of old age has changed dramatically. In the early 1900s, average life expectancy at birth was about 49 years—today, it is nearly 80 years. With longevity, however, comes the sobering news that older people may live for years with one or more chronic, potentially disabling conditions. This means they will have an ongoing need for medical services.Doctor talking to an older woman about aging

No single characteristic describes an older patient. Each person has a different view of what it means to be old.

Views of Aging

Ageism can work both ways. Doctors can make assumptions about their older patients. Older people may unwittingly assume the stereotypes of old age. Those with treatable symptoms may dismiss their problems as an inevitable part of aging and not get medical care. As a result, they may suffer needless discomfort and disability. Some may not even seek treatment for serious conditions.

The process of aging may be troubling for older adults. It can be especially hard for people who were generally healthy and could bounce back quickly from an illness. Experts observe that baby boomers bring different expectations, experiences, and preferences to aging than did previous generations. For instance, some boomers will want to participate actively in their health care and work collaboratively with clinicians to determine what treatments might best work for them. They frequently go online to search for health information.

Values About Health

Consider starting an appointment with the following question: "What are your goals for your care?" Although clinicians typically focus on diagnosing and treating disease, older people generally care most about maintaining the quality of their lives. They are not necessarily preoccupied with death. In fact, many older people are relatively accepting of the prospect of death and want to make the most of their remaining years. Younger family members, who might have to make life-and-death decisions when an older person is incapacitated, may be unaware of the patient's views and preferences.

This content is provided by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health. NIA scientists and other experts review this content to ensure that it is accurate, authoritative, and up to date.