Matthew, one of our summer interns, had an eye-opening and transformative experience. As he told us, “Before my time with A Helping Hand, I thought I knew what life was like for the elderly. Like most kids growing up, I visited my grandparents a couple times a year, occasionally greeted an elderly neighbor, and frequently saw elderly couples walking around town. So, at least to my knowledge, elderly life was very similar to living at every other life stage. However, what I didn’t see was the issue. I couldn’t see the isolation, the loneliness, the pain, and the suffering.”
As part of orientation, Matthew took part in a sensitivity training designed to simulate various visual and mobility impairments that commonly affect older adults. “It’s one thing to learn about common diseases that the elderly face in a textbook or in a classroom lecture, but actually wearing glasses to mimic visual impairments and other diseases and conditions really brought the lesson home. Once I could experience a patient’s disabilities myself, it became much easier to empathize with them,” he said. The activity struck a chord with Matthew. “I immediately thought back to all the times when I became agitated with a slow driver ahead of me on the highway or at the sight of an elderly person trying to find exact change in front of me at the grocery store. I quickly realized that these elderly and disabled people were obviously not trying to inconvenience me, but they truly were trying their best to adapt to a world that seemed to pass them by. Even further, they most likely felt just as stressed out and embarrassed as I felt annoyed.”
Throughout his time working with clients, Matthew gained a more nuanced understanding of aging and health care. He particularly noticed how isolation and a lack of transportation affected his clients’ lives. “The reality with many elderly people, and especially the clients that we serve, is that they do not have many loved ones or caregivers to depend on. Children move away, spouses pass away, and thus the elderly are left to fend for themselves. For the majority of the elderly, driving themselves is not an option, and they must depend on public transportation for food, medical care, and social interactions. Unfortunately, especially in rural environments, these services are lacking, nonexistent, or not communicated well to the elderly.”
His internship experience also influenced his thoughts about his specialty as a future physician. He said, “To be honest, geriatrics had never really crossed my mind, but with all the training and hands-on experience I received from this internship, I decided to volunteer in the UNC Hospital Geriatrics Clinic this upcoming year. Regardless of wherever my career will take me, I know I will be able to apply the skills I have learned through my time with A Helping Hand.” Encouraging health students to enter the field of geriatrics is necessary now more than ever – the U.S. currently has a shortfall of 13,176 geriatricians to meet the needs of the most vulnerable 30% of older adults. By 2030, that number will increase to 23,617.
AHH’s model of patient-centered care will be a guiding force as Matthew becomes a doctor. As he told us, “First and foremost, every patient is a person with individual wants and needs—and thus their healthcare must be personalized to reflect this. In addition, there is a fine line between being dependent on someone and maintaining independence; being able to balance both of these qualities goes a long way toward improving mental health. Finally, it’s important to embrace aging as a whole, for too long it has been a taboo conversation topic. For too long the elderly have been ignored and forgotten. The more we can talk about aging, the easier it will be to address the large aging population that many countries are facing. We all age, it’s a law of nature. The sooner we realize this, the better.”