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How pairing UC medical students with retired seniors helps everyone

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CINCINNATI — Fourth-year University of Cincinnati medical student Elianna Peak chose to specialize in geriatrics because of what she learned from people like Betty Busby.

Busby isn’t a doctor. She’s a resident of Maple Knoll retirement community, a senior living facility with which UC has partnered in varying capacities for three decades. Although she doesn’t have medical training, she’s still a valuable source of information for students such as Peak — a living lesson in medical history as well as empathetic interactions with patients. 

“Our formal affiliations with the University of Cincinnati has allowed for a lot of intergenerational relationships to form on our campus” Maple Knoll’s vice president of marketing and communications, Megan Gresham-Ulrich, said.

UC’s 15-year-old “Tell Me Your Story” program matches Maple Knoll residents with medical students so those students have experience interacting with seniors in good health. Those students learn complex lessons by asking simple questions. The easiest: “How have you been?” 

“They seem to care about what we say,” Busby said. “Nobody really asks us those questions very often.”

“Knowing that you’re golfing gives me a huge picture of your health,” added Peak. “You’re able to get around and that only the last three holes you were tired … that’s an enormous amount of information with a simple question.”

Dr. Susan Davis, associate professor of clinical medicine, said it’s important for students to develop a realistic baseline idea of what older adults in good health are like. The first encounter many students have with a senior in treatment could easily be as dramatic as it is non-representative: Patients who are physically frail, bedridden or living with degenerative mental conditions such as dementia.

“The disease states are not normal,” she said. “We want (students) to interview normal people in their homes who happen to be older. … It’s focusing on what the patient needs and using that older patient as your true north for your compass.”

Adults over the age of 65 are the fastest-growing segment of the United States population, Davis said, meaning nearly any doctor in nearly any specialization will count them as a substantial portion of their patient base. If doctors’ perceptions of senior health aren’t calibrated correctly, the result could be disastrous. 

But if doctors are taught to listen to their patients, take their experiences seriously and remember that ill health isn’t intrinsic to older age, everyone benefits.

“We’ve had good experiences,” Busby said. “We really like our doctors.”

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