Pilot program pairing med students with senior citizens seen as success

Five weeks of bonding meant to encourage more doctors to select geriatrics

July 16, 2004|By Malena Amusa | Malena Amusa,SUN STAFF

A national pilot program that sought to expose Johns Hopkins School of Medicine students to the joys of working with senior citizens has produced encouraging initial results, researchers from the National Institute on Aging announced yesterday.

The Vital Visionaries Collaboration program - a series of sessions at the American Visionary Art Museum - sought to give the medical students a well-rounded perspective on the elderly.

Of the 15 first-year medical students who were paired with 15 local seniors, 75 percent said they wanted to see older patients in their future practices, compared with only 13 percent in a nonparticipating control group of medical students.

Over the course of five weeks, the pairs bonded over art projects in four creative art sessions. And while finding their inner Picassos, the teams also found lasting friendships.

"I didn't know I would meet such a new and young friend," said Elaine Rosenbloom, a 75-year-old retired secretary who worked with Cesar Briceno, a 25-year-old Hopkins student.

The idea for the program emerged from concern over the decreasing number of medical students going into geriatrics, said Judith A. Salerno, deputy director of the National Institute on Aging. She joined the museum to facilitate a marriage between the young and the old.

"This was a great opportunity to learn what successful aging is like," said Salerno. "In hospitals and clinics, you only see the downside of aging."

About 36,000 geriatricians will be needed by 2030 to treat the growing number of elderly - a huge increase from the 7,500 geriatricians currently in practice, according to a study conducted this year by the Association of Directors of Geriatric Academic programs.

Negative perceptions of the elderly and a lack of exposure to elderly people deter students from entering the practice, Salerno said.

Briceno agreed. He said Rosenbloom was especially eye-opening for him. Prior to the program, he said he had only related to seniors through his ill grandmother.

"For my entire life, my experiences with the elderly has been within the context of my family and within the context of illness," Briceno said. "This was the first time I could build a close relationship with a senior on an entirely equal level."

But Briceno and others represent only a small pool of hope.

So coordinators of the program - including Salerno, museum founder Rebecca Hoffberger and Hopkins class coordinator Jean Ogborn - plan to put together a tool kit to introduce the program nationally.

"The program is relatively inexpensive and has huge gains," Salerno said.

Until then, the spirit of the pilot program lives on through the friendships made and the museum's current exhibition, Golden Blessings of Old Age - set to run through early September.

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