'Might not look any further:' Ageism can impede thorough assessment if nurses make assumptions, says U of A prof trying to end such bias

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Educating nursing students not to equate confusion and lack of mobility with every older patient may help end the enduring ageist stigma and lead to better care, says one University of Alberta professor.

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“If we believe these negative stereotypes and we see older people in a health care institution that have confusion or difficulty mobilizing then we might not look any further,” said Sherry Dahlke in an interview. “Those functional changes could mean an acute illness that needs to be treated and they will improve.”

Dahlke, an associate professor in the faculty of nursing, has been doing research for the last two years trying to understand how student nurses are educated to work with older people. After speaking with students and practicing nurses, she said they both flagged similar learning gaps in treating seniors.

Addressing the gaps needs to be done before students graduate, said Dahlke, who has created three e-learning modules for a cross-Canada project. It will be tested by 700 nursing students at two Canadian universities to evaluate its effectiveness.

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The modules address topics of understanding and communicating with older patients, differences in cognitive impairments, and topics of continence and mobility.

“One of the things the students said was they didn’t know how to relate to an older generation,” said Dahlke. “Perhaps they didn’t have grandparents or older people around them, so they didn’t really even know how to start a conversation.”

Dahlke said she’s happy that society is starting to acknowledge negative perceptions held against Indigenous people, people of colour, religion and gender. Now it’s time to recognize the stereotypes held against older people.

“It’s so insidious into our society that we don’t even recognize that it’s going on,” she said. “Everyone, health care professionals included, are subject to it because we’re all in society and it’s so insidious we don’t even know it’s occurring.”

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The education modules which include interactive activities, video clips, and real life scenarios, are just the first stage of the study, said Dahlke. There is also an advisory group, made up of professionals and seniors, that will start meeting in August.

“The advisory group is going to meet and talk about ageism,” said Dahlke. “We’re going to use the findings from the study testing the e-learning activities to see if it’s an effective way to diminish ageism. Could it be used in other populations?”

Dahlke’s project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, will later test the modules on practicing nurses.

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