Even in a dental practice, age can be looked at as a negative.
Even in a dental practice, age can be looked at as a negative. Let me explain. I went to my periodontist for a screening and cleaning this morning. At first glance, I realized that the hygienist who rides me about my bleeding gums (when flossing) wasn’t there. She has “left the practice.” (Just my luck! You really hate when you’ve trained them just the way you like them to clean your teeth.) So, we had to go over the basics… “I have TMJ. I have a $55,000 mouth. Can’t keep my mouth open too long while doing a cleaning. Need to have multiple breaks so my jaws don’t lock up.” (Luckily, I haven’t had a problem for years. But, why tempt fate?) I didn’t even bother with “Please don’t use my chest as a place to lay your tools while working on me.” (I’ll save that issue for my next visit.)
This new hygienist, Serena, was lovely. Patiently, she listened and took notes. Serena is in her 60s and worked for 30 years for a dentist who unfortunately died. My periodontist bought his practice, and she was moved to this location. At first, I was nervous because of her age. Would her hands shake? Luckily, Serena had her act together. What I realized was how great she was doing her job. To be honest, I was surprised. I get it, the more you practice a skill, the better you get. But, did I have a deep-down prejudice profiling someone because of his or her age? Let’s hope I’m not that shallow.
This was a sobering experience for me. No one likes to look at himself or herself and see that he or she has prejudices. Do we judge someone based on his or her age? Now that I’ve entered the land of over 50, are people looking at me that way? Do they question my ability to do my job just because of a few grey hairs? (Ok, way more than a few, but I can’t color my hair every day, right?) I always make the joke that “I am proud of my stripes, which I have earned.” You know what I mean, the wrinkles around my eyes. But am I just drawing attention to my age somehow? I know that there are some women who keep their age a secret. As for me, I like to blast it out loud and am proud of it. Survival is something to celebrate, right?
But what about Serena? Does she know that I was doubting her because of her age? That’s a harsh reality that I really don’t want to look at, but I’m being transparent here. It was what went through my mind. Then I thought about all the articles I’ve written about body ergonomics and how bending over patients to clean teeth can take its toll. (Am I now making excuses for my profiling? This is really disturbing.) My point in all of this is do you discriminate and have prejudices against your colleagues who may be older than you? Do your patients see you in a different light than they did when you were 20 years younger? It may be upsetting to even ask yourself the question, but it’s important.
So, why ask? Because it matters. If you prejudge someone like I did today, you’re not being open-minded. Older people are rock solid and tend to stick around longer than younger contemporaries. Turnover matters; it impacts the running of the office as well as the patients. Let’s face it, ageism is ugly, and that kind of ugliness needs to be eradicated. We need to not judge people by how they look, what their orientation is, who they love, how old they are, what religion or nationality they are, or what color their skin is.
Remember what I learned this morning. A more seasoned employee brings years of skills, expertise and maturity to handling whatever the patient needs. This is the crux of what matters. How open and accepting are you of the diversity in your practice?
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and share some of the experiences you’ve had regarding this issue.