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S.A.G.E. Advice
In pairing up with older adults, medical students learn about the challenges of growing old


Melissa Dattalo with her senior mentor, Armeatchel Evans. “I can only aspire to live life so gracefully,” says the third-year medical student.

As a child growing up in a suburb of Detroit, medical student Ariel Green lived with her parents and siblings—and her grandparents. They were an energetic pair. Her grandmother, for example, entered medical school at age 56, right along with Green’s mother.

Eventually, though, Green’s grandmother began to deteriorate physically, and her grandfather developed dementia. “Watching them grow older and knowing how challenging it was even for us, a family of doctors, to find the support systems we needed, made me think about people with not even a tenth as many resources as we had.”

By the time she entered medical school, Green already had a strong interest in geriatrics. That in itself is a good thing, for even as the population grays disproportionately, geriatricians are in short supply. The specialty is generally unpopular with medical students, in part because geriatricians typically are not paid well.

Green wanted to find a way for her fellow students to better understand the challenges of growing old. By spending some time with older adults in their homes, she reasoned, students could help diminish the social isolation and loneliness that are too often facts of life for many elderly Americans.

Three years ago, as a first-year student, Green took her idea to John Burton, former director of the Division of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology. With Burton’s support and guidance, she piloted Adopt-A-Grandparent in the summer of 2004. Since then, the program—now known as S.A.G.E., for service and awareness through geriatric education—has grown to include anywhere from 10 to 20 active students at a time. Most are medical students; a few are nursing students.

The students call on their “senior mentors” on a monthly basis, some more often. The visits are not medically focused but simply offer a chance for companionship and emotional support. Together, the students and their senior mentors might chat, take walks, play games or share meals. Some students read aloud or teach computer skills to their senior mentors.

Third-year medical student Melissa Dattalo visits her mentor, Armeatchel Evans, a few times a month. “We talk about different things—what’s happening and what has happened in my life,” says Evans. “We just enjoy ourselves when we’re together.”

 “Learning about my adopted grandparent’s life story has been quite inspirational,” says Dattalo. “Her generosity, faith and inner strength allow her to face every challenge with a smile, whether it’s feeding the hungry in her community or losing her vision to declining health. She is truly a survivor. I can only aspire to live life so gracefully.”

The older adults are identified for the program through the Division of Geriatrics. Jane Marks, associate director of the Geriatric Education Center at Hopkins Bayview, helps refer patients and coordinates the visits. She chooses socially isolated elderly people who would benefit from new friendships. Green and her colleagues also identify senior mentors through collaborations with senior apartment complexes and programs like Meals on Wheels.

“Many elderly people are unable to leave their homes due to poor health and as a result spend every day alone,” says Green. “The S.A.G.E. program is a simple way for medical students to fill a huge gap in caring for the elderly.”

Sandy Reckert-Reusing


Info: www.jhu.edu/sage
 

 

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