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Ageism affects health, wellbeing of younger and older adults

Natalie Tauzin addresses biases associated with ageism.

By Mary Stamp

Natalie Tauzin's positive experiences with her parents' and grandparents' aging lend insights for her work as healthy aging specialist at the Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD), where she seeks to improve the health and wellbeing of older adults.

Recently the SRHD named ageism as an issue affecting people's health.

Natalie valued hearing her grandparents' stories of living in and leaving their homelands, settling in the U.S. and living through the Depression.

Her paternal grandmother from the Basque area and grandfather from central France met after landing in Los Angeles.

Natalie's maternal grandparents were French Canadian farmers in Ontario.

"Both were resourceful. Their stories helped me understand the past and reminded me when I hit obstacles to be resilient," said Natalie.

"My paternal grandmother, a storyteller, had a twinkle in her eye as she told about her life as a child and young adult," recalled Natalie, who also feels privileged that her parents kept physically active as they aged, beginning jogging in their 40s and running marathons.

Her parents did their own house cleaning and yard work, living in Los Angeles close to family and friends. At 87, her mother lives in her own home, pays her bills, shops for groceries and does lawn bowling.

"Having personal ties with people from different generations helps dispel ageism," she said. "Equally important is awareness of and self-reflection on ageism as a form of discrimination."

Natalie began working on aging with the SRHD in early 2023. As a registered dietitian with a master's degree in public health from the University of California Los Angeles, she knows that good nutrition and physical activity are just part of what helps people age in a healthy way.

Beginning with the SRHD 15 years ago in the Women's Infants and Children's (WIC) program, she also worked in the early learning program, started Feed Cheney monthly meals for low-income college students and older adults, and then oversaw a sodium reduction program for large-employer cafeterias in Spokane.

Trust for America's Health recently recognized the Spokane Regional Health District as an "Age Friendly Public Health System" because it implemented the public health process to prioritize the health and well-being of older adults. This year, the SRHD marked the American Society on Aging's Ageism Awareness Day on Oct. 7 to highlight ageism.

"Many people are unaware of their internal biases about age and how prevalent those biases are," said Natalie. "So, the SRHD and community partners are reframing how we talk about aging and promoting representing older adults as enriching the lives of their families and people around them."

Ageism includes stereotypes (how people think), prejudices (how people feel), and discrimination (how people act) towards others or themselves based on expectations related to age, she said.

"It takes many forms, affects people of any age and harms everyone," Natalie continued. "Although it is universal, it is not always taken as seriously as other forms of inequity, even though it exacerbates them."

Citing a 2022 Ohio study of aging and retirement that followed 660 people 50 years and older, she noted that older persons who had positive self-perceptions of aging 20 years earlier lived on average 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions of aging.

According to AARP, ageism is widespread in society, in workplaces, in health systems and in underrepresentation and negative stereotypes in media. Images in media affect people subconsciously, influencing attitudes, expectations and behaviors of younger and older people.

SRHD asks its partners, faith communities and the community to help change negative views about aging.

Natalie said a first step is to start a conversation on ageism to build awareness of the prejudice and how it might present itself in various settings.

The World Health Organization's Global Campaign to Combat Ageism—at—offers a guide to engage people in dialogue and recognize how every generation is vital to a community's health, said Natalie.

"Healthy aging starts before birth in how society is structured, how people learn, how people are treated and what historic traumas families have had," she explained.

"We need to look at ageism along with racism, sexism and ableism to see how they intersect. A Black Hispanic woman over 65 from another country potentially faces multiple forms of discrimination. These biases layer on each other to create multiple barriers to accessing services and dignified treatment to enhance healthy aging," Natalie said.

People who do not feel they belong suffer mental and physical health harms.

"If a general practitioner says someone's symptoms are just part of growing old, the patient may suffer, rather than finding medicines, treatments and studies that can help," she said.

She offered some examples.

A 2023 Alzheimer's research study found that 10 years after someone quits smoking, their arteries look like they never smoked, so if they are advised early to quit smoking their bodies can rejuvenate. That study, reported in Neuroscience News, is "Smokers Generally Unaware That Quitting Smoking Will Reduce Risk of Dementia."

A recent study funded by the National Institute of Health showed that hearing aids slow cognitive decline in people with high risk of dementia. With hearing loss, people can become isolated and lack stimulation, accelerating mental loss. People in the study receiving hearing aids had an almost 50 percent reduction in the rate of cognitive decline over three years compared with those in the health-education study only.

In 2022, the Federal Drug Administration ruled to enable access—without a medical exam, prescription or fitting adjustment by an audiologist—to over-the-counter hearing aids for millions of people with perceived mild to moderate hearing impairment.  Family and friends, noticing someone is not tracking conversations, can assist the person to do a free online hearing test. Hearing aids can slow neural degeneration from isolation.

Natalie described some resources of Aging and Long Term Care of Eastern Washington (ALTCEW).

• A Dementia Action Collaborative flier suggests congregations can talk about dementia. There are higher rates among African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics who face discrimination and racism. They experience barriers to the social determinants to health, which include access to medical care, education, safe housing, living wages and healthy environments.

• There is a need for more geriatric physicians to care for the rising number of older adults.

• The medical field, urban planning and public transportation can learn from and involve older people in shaping their communities and improving their quality of life.

• A local urban planner suggests tailoring spaces for people with dementia. He proposed that Parks and Recreation develop a memory garden, a space with low fences where a caregiver can sit and a person with dementia can safely walk in nature to calm their mind and body.

• ALTCEW has set up memory cafés in public libraries where people with dementia can bring pictures, play music, share stories and socialize.

• Spokane's Canopy Project recognizes the need to plant trees and build houses in ways to protect people, especially elders, from heat waves.

• The ALTCEW website offers programs and volunteer opportunities.

"Ageism manifests throughout life," Natalie said. "Young adults are considered too inexperienced to be hired. Older adults are stereotyped as irrelevant, unable to contribute to society and lacking future goals."

Those stereotypes are amplified by racism, sexism and ableism, she added.

Some physicians may brush off symptoms as signs of aging rather than listening to give a diagnosis.

"The American Society on Aging urges us to recognize ageism, to see how our beliefs as a society and individuals affect prejudices," Natalie said.

"We encourage positive perceptions of aging, challenging media to avoid stereotypical images in commercials and articles. People internalize those images in their identities," she said.

Some may stop doing things they love, decrease interactions and become isolated based on expectations, she said.

Natalie offered some suggestions.

Congregations can view and discuss YouTube videos by Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism.

Congregations can hold intergenerational events to learn how different cultures honor older members.

The SRHD urges colleges and universities to recruit more students to study geriatric medicine, even though it pays less than cardiology. Many more geriatricians are needed.

Natalie, who grew up Catholic and attends Life Center in Cheney, pointed out that it is important to believe in and be part of something bigger than oneself.

"Faith reassures that life has meaning and involvement in a faith community provides multi-generational extended families," she added.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, December 2023