Three-fold health care discrimination if you’re Black, elderly and a woman

By Rogene Reid

Rogene Reid

Earlier this year, my 79-year-old mother was attacked on public transit. She was taken to the hospital, where I met up with her a few hours later.

Once there, I found myself paying close attention to the ways in which the police and the nurses treated her, how their actions came across, to me, as subtle forms of dismissal. As a Black woman, my life experiences have trained me to see both conscious and subconscious biases in the way people treat me — it is an unfortunate but necessary skill Black people and people of colour have learned in order to survive and navigate this society. And my mother is not only a Black woman, but an elderly Black woman. It’s a triple whammy if you are Black, a woman and elderly.

Born in Jamaica, my mother came to Canada, like many immigrants, for the possibilities this country could offer. She experienced both racism and sexism once here. However, now, as an elderly woman, ageism has been yet another form of discrimination she has to navigate.

I came away from my mother’s experience in the hospital feeling that emergency personnel and hospital staff displayed a dismissive approach to her concerns. It seemed to me that her symptoms were downplayed or ignored, and tests were only reluctantly given. There was also an assumption that she would have access to the internet (she doesn’t own a computer) to review her files online.

There is evidence that these forms of discrimination exist in health care, policing and society as a whole.

The 2012 Revera Report on ageism explains that 41 per cent of the surveyed respondents over the age of 66 stated that they are often treated as invisible. The same report notes that one in five Canadians say older Canadians are a burden on society, and that 38 per cent of older Canadians felt that people assumed they had nothing of value to contribute.

A 2021 issue of the University of Ottawa Journal of Medicine reports that Canadian seniors spend less time talking to their health-care providers than any other age group. It goes on to state that ageism is inherent in the attitudes of health care professionals (HCPs), which is reflective of a problem in wider society.

According to the World Health Organization, ageism is a form of socially acceptable discrimination.

Though I didn’t know these stats by heart at the time of my mother’s hospitalization, I was aware that older patients often got the short end of the stick in health care settings.

I was also painfully aware of the systemic racism in health care. I had heard multiple stories of HCPs minimizing the symptoms of Black patients.

In 2017, John River, a Black man, went to five hospitals in the Greater Toronto Area and was dismissed as a drug user or as someone exaggerating symptoms. Three months later, he was diagnosed with spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak.

Numerous studies have also shown that Black people face inequities in health outcomes compared to their white counterparts, including a greater risk of chronic disease and disabilities, and much of this is due to structural and systemic policies that make access to health care difficult.

What’s more, the concerns of women — specifically Black women — are often overlooked and minimized within the health-care system. The fact that both tennis star Serena Williams and music icon Beyoncé had potentially fatal childbirths underlines what studies have shown: doctors disregard or discount complaints of pain by Black patients more frequently than they do for white patients.

Where does that leave you if you’re elderly, Black and a woman?

There is a lack of Canadian research on discrimination when the three identities intersect. Black health care initiatives are growing, leading to programs such as the Dalla Lana School of Public Health’s new masters of public health in Black health at the University of Toronto, and the Canadian Medical Association Journal publishing two special editions featuring research by Black authors examining systemic failures and calling for change.

Currently, discussions about the intersection of ageism and sexism are buzzing the public forum, though these conversations occur only after the discrimination has taken place. But everyone has a personal responsibility to do better when we encounter the elderly.

Treating the elderly with respect is good community building and the right thing to do. After all, we all age.

Rogene Reid is a School administrator and a freelance writer, and produced this article for the CBC.