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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Brain Atrophy of Elderly in Nursing Homes: Racism, Social Inappropriateness, Depression, and Problem Gambling

An African American, I have experienced racism my entire life. A child raised in the Jim Crow South, I was reminded every day of my unimportance. Up North in Michigan, I live in one of the most segregated states in America. The continuing documentation of racial-ethnic healthcare disparities in America speaks for itself.

I wasn’t surprised at all when several African American nursing assistants (CNA’s) I spoke to at nursing homes in both Michigan and Massachusetts complained about being targets of racist comments by their elderly white patients. What was interesting in a few instances was that the comments were overheard by the patients’ relatives who said they were shocked after hearing them. Some relatives even apologized to the nursing assistants for the behavior of the patients. According to these relatives, they had never heard the patients make racist statements during all the years they had known them.

These incidents came to mind when I read this research from “Current Directions in Psychological Science” about brain atrophy, which is a gradual shrinking of the brain that includes significant atrophy in the frontal lobes where executive functioning occurs. The study reports that the results of this atrophy include decreased inhibitory ability in late adulthood that can lead to unintended prejudice, social inappropriateness (such as publicly asking personal questions), depression, and problem gambling. University of Queensland psychologist Bill von Hippel explains that older white adults showed greater stereotyping toward African Americans than younger white adults did. Despite being more motivated to control their prejudices, older whites’ attempts to inhibit their prejudices failed.

The study proposes that some of the negative social behaviors attributed to the elderly may be resulting from their loss of inhibition. You can read more about this research on brain atrophy in the elderly at the “Medical News Today” website.

Note: A study from the Buehler Center on Aging at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine states that nearly 75 percent of nursing assistants (CNA’s) working in nursing homes experience racism on the job. This research showed that racism is expressed by nursing home residents as well as residents' families and nursing home co-workers.

Frances Shani Parker, Author
"Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes”
Hospice and Nursing Homes Blog