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Raising the Profile

by Julia Sneden

Yesterday my local newspaper carried a story out of San Antonio with the headline "Age bias can affect treatment, experts say." This is new news? Age bias, alas, affects everything in our world.

The article disclosed that "Women over 70 with breast cancer are less likely than their younger counterparts to be offered screenings, participation in clinical trials, chemotherapy, radiation and other treatment options"

Yes. I remember that when my father's mother, aged 91, developed breast cancer back in the late '60's, she had the devil's own time convincing a doctor to perform a mastectomy. When she finally found one, my father asked the young doctor how long the period of recovery might be. The doctor scratched his head and replied: "Gee, I don't know. I've never performed the procedure on an old lady before."

But it's not just breast cancer treatment that's pushed aside when doctors deem women to be "near the end of their lives." When my mother was in her late 80's, she developed severe cervical arthritis in her neck. As it progressed, it not only bent her head forward and caused her to lose the use of her hands, it created agonizing pain. Her general practitioner sent her to an arthritis specialist, who said something vague concerning an operation that might help, adding: "that's not for someone your age." He put her on a strong new painkiller that proved to be addictive, and after a very short while lost its effectiveness for pain.

Fortunately, she switched to another doctor, a geriatric specialist, who found a neurosurgeon who would at least evaluate her for the operation. During the evaluation, Mother corrected the doctor's grammar not once but twice and demonstrated her knowledge of medical terminology by relating it to something from a Latin poem she remembered. The doctor responded to her pro-active stance by offering her not one, but three options, the first of which was to do nothing, and die, which is, he said, the choice most 90-year-olds make. The third was an operation that was most effective, but had a 6 month recovery period. The second operation didn't promise recovery of her manual dexterity, but would keep the pain away. She chose it, saying: "At my age, I don't have 6 months to waste on recovery." The operation worked, and by way of a bonus, so did her hands. While the ensuing five years of her life were no picnic, at least she didn't suffer the terrible pain, could feed herself and write in her journal, and come and go from the nursing home whenever she liked.

Once again, age bias was trumped. I hate to think of the outcome had either of these women quietly accepted the fate to which their first doctors would have left them.

These are just two small examples of the unfairness often visited on the old. Certainly we can't single out the medical profession, inasmuch as we find age bias active in virtually every corner of our lives. For example, the woman who runs this site had originally envisioned supporting it through the kind of dignified advertising one hears on PBS, such as: "Senior Women Web is brought to you by a grant from the _______ Foundation," or "This page of Senior Women Web is proudly sponsored by the ________ Corporation." No one, so far, has picked up on the advantages of supporting the website. The statistics for "hits," even without active promotion, are impressive, but apparently advertisers don't think old ladies are worth the investment. The site continues to run on the good will of its creator and its contributors.

What to do about all this? There are many organizations that try to defend the rights and needs of older Americans. The Gray Panthers comes to mind, although its decidedly liberal tilt keeps many from joining the organization. The AARP has in the past been an active voice on behalf of seniors, but its recent foray into the insurance business has tainted its claims of independence. Its support of the recent joke of a drug benefits bill has raised many questions, especially in view of its lame excuse that a bad bill is better than none.

In many societies, the elderly are treated with respect, often consulted, and sometimes even revered. But America seems to need reminding that we seniors are people of experience and talent and energy, that our wrinkles and gray hair bespeak wisdom gained through years of living, and that we still have much to offer to those younger than we.

Once we retire, our image changes. Perhaps this is because we tend to deal with life effectively but quietly. No longer in positions of authority with the cachet of a large organization behind us, nor even, for that matter, "dressed for success," we enjoy the luxury of interacting with the world on our own terms. We find ourselves with a lowered profile that is often comfortable, and is certainly well-earned.

The problem is that a low profile doesn't cut it in this age of flash and dash.

What to do? It seems to me that seniors need a massive, well-run public relations campaign. I have no idea of how one could bring this about, other than to note that there are LOTS of retired public relations experts who, if they could be funded, might leap at the chance to make a difference in the public's perception of older women.

It wouldn't be hard to find material for such a campaign. For instance, I'd love to see a statistic on how many of the first President Bush's "1,000 Points of Light" are senior women. Freed from the daily claims that our families once made, possibly freed from the demands of our careers, how many of us find ways to serve others? How many of us engage in acts small and large to help close the gap between those who have and those who have not? How many of us spend countless hours sitting by the bedsides of the sick, or working in hospital gift shops? How many of us mentor younger women, or care for our grandchildren after school so that their mothers may pursue careers?

How many of us keep a firm hand on the family finances, lend money to our children so that they can buy that first house or start a grandchild's college fund? How many of us volunteer to help out in political campaigns or serve on election boards or work with the League of Women Voters? How many of us use our good intelligences and our personal histories to express our wisdom through letters to newspapers and magazines, or to young family members?

The generosity of older women is quite amazing. All of us can recite a long list of friends who are making a difference in small but important ways. Most of us are far from the cartoon image of fussy old ladies who snoop on the neighbors, or play bridge all day long, or watch TV and eat bonbons. The sad fact is that WE know this, but often the rest of the world seems not to.

Ladies, it's time to blow our own horn. Is there anyone out there who'd like to take this on?

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