Age-old problem hinders treatment

If I hadn’t already seen men and women of his standing discriminated against by medical professionals, the question Herb Gilbert asked — “Is it too much to ask to be treated like an adult by doctors and nurses?” — would seem strange.

After all, he was in the Army Air Corps during World War II, ran a successful real estate development business, has children and grandchildren.

But he’s 90, and that means enduring people acting as though he can’t think and can’t hear, which he said became even more frustrating recently during two short hospital stays for heart treatment.

Medical professionals, he said, ignored him, discussing his case with younger people on hand, as though he was incapable of reason.

Gilbert also said health professionals engaged in what researchers refer to as “elderspeak” — talking needlessly slow and loud, patronizing him with the “sweetie” or “dear” usually reserved for a child.

“I’m not trying to make trouble,” the widower said as he sat in his Las Vegas condo. “But I don’t think I should be treated like a kid. It’s not fair.”

Actually, it’s disgusting. Gilbert at 90 is as sharp as anyone I ever interviewed.

He drives with ease to shop and to gamble, to visit friends and to enjoy parks.

No one, he argues, exhibits a more demeaning attitude toward those up in years than health care workers. Research backs that up. A 2008 Yale study found the worst offenders of “elderspeak” — which scientists say contributes to seniors giving up on life — are often medical professionals whose excuse for doing it was that they thought they were being kind.

I don’t buy it. They should be able to quickly size up whether someone has his faculties. But they’re lazy. Though six out of seven seniors don’t have dementia, it’s easier for medical types to lump them together and act like every senior is three bricks shy of a load.

Paul Sgobba couldn’t believe how his friend was treated at Summerlin and Centennial Hills hospitals. At Summerlin, Gilbert said, he patiently told a nurse that his own doctor said he had to take his medication at intervals for safety reasons. With Gilbert right there, the nurse ignored him, telling Sgobba the medicine had to be taken all at once.

“Why wasn’t Herb treated with respect? Sgobba said.

Gilbert checked out of the hospital early. Summerlin officials declined comment.

At Centennial Hills, Gilbert said, he developed an eye infection that hospital staff refused to treat. Sgobba was incredulous that staff acted like his friend was insane for asking for treatment.

The day after leaving the hospital he was treated for conjunctivitis. I saw the eye doctor’s orders for treatment.

But Centennial Hills officials said patients are treated for whatever comes up during a hospital stay and staff know how to deal with seniors.

Dr. Lisa Rosenberg, a geriatric specialist, said that too often medical personnel “treat the age of the individual instead of the individual himself … it’s really unfortunate.”

Whenever I see people with some age on them treated badly, I remember how in 2001, when I worked in the Texas Medical Center in Houston, the then 83-year-old Dr. Denton Cooley performed successful open heart surgery on a Louisiana man. Before doing the difficult surgery no one in Louisiana could do, the great heart surgeon talked about why he could do it.

“I got my first hole-in-one the other day after 67 years of playing golf, so I figure I’m on a bit of a roll.”

Paul Harasim is the medical reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His column appears Mondays. Harasim can be reached at or 702-387-2908.

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