AHH addresses geriatrician shortage

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.”

Internships inspire careers in geriatrics

Yasmin came to A Helping Hand as an intern in the fall of 2016. At the time, she wanted to go to medical school, but didn’t know what specialty she wanted to pursue. She didn’t have much experience working with older adults, but was interested in learning more about geriatrics and elder care. “[The internship] helped me realized the health disparities that exist among older populations, and how this is a growing problem as the baby boomer generation ages that not many people are talking about,” she said. The firsthand experience she gained working with AHH clients pushed her to consider a new career path. Instead of medical school, she is now pursuing a master’s in public health, in a program specializing in health of an aging society.

After finishing her internship with AHH, Yasmin continued to be involved with older adults in the community. She continued to work at Charles House, one of the sites where she volunteered as an intern. She also got involved with the Orange County Department on Aging’s Caregiver Respite program. She’s continued to volunteer her time with A Helping Hand, serving on our holiday committee that organizes and distributes gifts to charitable program clients. She’s worked with Amanda Borer, the associate director of Charles House, on starting an NC branch of the Eldercare Workforce Alliance, a national organization committed to addressing the current and future workforce crisis in caring for an aging population. As part of the Gillings Student Interest Group on Aging, she is helping plan their annual aging conference.

Yasmin clearly has a passion for helping older adults and bringing awareness to the public health issues, and it all started with the AHH internship program! Typically our interns come to us with limited experience working with older adults and adults with disabilities. However, their experience with us often ignites an interest in continuing to work with this group. One of the aspects of the program that we’re proudest of is being able to inspire young people to pursue geriatrics-related fields.

Yasmin, we appreciate your continued advocacy and work on behalf of older adults in the community!