Clinical placements

There is no place for ageism in healthcare

A clinical placement working with older people opened nursing student Nina Mitchell’s eyes to ageism in the NHS and why it needs to be challenged

A clinical placement working with older people opened nursing student Nina Mitchell’s eyes to ageism in the NHS and why it needs to be challenged

Nina Mitchell challenged a colleague who she felt was discriminating
against a patient because of their age.

Ageism was not something I thought about during my nurse training, but I realised it existed during a clinical placement working with older people, some of whom had dementia. 

I first noticed this when I was participating in handover. I mentioned that a patient, who I will call George, had told me that his slippers were too tight and had requested that we ask his daughter to bring him in a bigger size on her next visit. 

George, who spent most of his time in bed, seemed to get distressed when he had to get out of bed for meals or use the toilet, and he was reluctant to leave his room. 

During handover, a member of staff told me: ‘He is just confused because of his dementia. You’ll find that the old people on this ward like to moan about anything, it’s their age.’ 

Problem unaddressed 

I had built up a therapeutic relationship with George, taking the time to get to know him and adapting my care to his individual needs. I decided to go and see him and have a look at his slippers. I could see that his slippers were too small, and had caused several blisters on both feet. 

It occurred to me that George must have mentioned this to other health professionals. The blisters were large and appeared to have been there for a while, but the problem had not been investigated due to the assumption that he was confused because of his dementia, and was complaining because he was an older man.  

When I informed the staff member about George’s blisters, she called the doctor, who advised us he needed better fitting slippers and shoes, as a physical health condition had caused his legs and feet to swell. 

After George was treated for the blisters and received new footwear that fit properly, his mood lifted significantly, and he no longer spent time in bed during the day. Instead, he walked around the garden and socialised with other patients. 

Confidence to challenge 

When the derogatory comments were made during handover, I initially felt embarrassed. I was not being listened to and raising my concerns did not resolve the problem. I felt angry, as George’s blisters were causing him pain and discomfort, which could easily have been avoided if he had been listened to. 

I was also disappointed, as I felt that the member of staff was ignoring Nursing and Midwifery Council guidelines on treating people as individuals and upholding their dignity. 

I am glad that I had the confidence to challenge this staff member about ageism, which seems to be seen as more socially acceptable than other ‘isms’, such as racism or sexism. Otherwise, George’s blisters may have gone unnoticed, and his mental and physical health could have deteriorated. 

I am now more sensitive to ageism, and ensure that I do not discriminate against anyone due to their age. I also have, and will continue to have, the confidence to challenge colleagues who I feel are discriminating against patients. 

Nina Mitchell is a second-year mental health nursing student at Birmingham City University

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