FOR THE last few years, I have been treated for a gastrointestinal problem that is monitored by periodic colonoscopies. I’m sure that those of you who are familiar with this test well know how difficult, uncomfortable and unpleasant it is, especially the preparation.
The compensation, however, has come afterward in the doctor’s comforting words, “Everything looks fine.”
The last time I underwent this procedure, I heard even more comforting words from the doctor: Now that I was turning 80, a colonoscopy would no longer be necessary.
My immediate reaction was a combination of gratitude and relief; later on, I began to have other reflections.
Certainly I would not miss having to go through this test, but what else did not having to go through it mean? Did it mean that the test results after this time didn’t matter any more? That, after 80, these health problems no longer warrant the same attention or worry as at an earlier age?
Did it mean that because I have already lived more than my “three score and 10" allotted years, I should not be worrying so much or wanting so much to have more years?
Did it mean that the test was not worthwhile or cost-effective, given the reality of the medical market and my stage of life? Did it mean that adding years to older patients’ lives was not as desirable or necessary as to younger people’s lives?
I agree that medical treatment needs to be pragmatic as well as compassionate in factoring in circumstances and resources. I understand that there are different standards of wellness that I should expect and accept now that I’m older, which may also mean different standards of treatment to expect and accept.
And I do believe that the intent of such medical policy -- on the part of most of the profession in general and certainly my doctor in particular -- is consideration for vulnerable elderly patients.
Yet in spite of all that, I’m uncomfortable with a treatment policy that sends such a mixed message to us older patients, even if unintentionally, i.e., that at the same time as we are presumably being protected, we are also being diminished.
It may well be that this medical policy is necessary and wise, but I wish doctors would realize how this can make older patients feel.
It’s as if they are devaluing the remaining years of our lives because there are so few left -- whereas, for us, those remaining years are precious because there are so few left.
Lillian Hawthorne is a retired clinical social worker and emeritus faculty member of the School of Social Work at USC. She lives in Leisure Village, a retirement community in Camarillo.
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