"Learning by Living" Provides Medical Students with a Window to Nursing Homes

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Some medical students at the University of New England in Biddeford, Me are taking advantage of a eye-opening “volunteer” opportunity – opting to be a resident at a nursing home for 10 days. These students (who are interested in becoming a geriatrician) can take part in the “Learning by Living” program. During their stay at the nursing home, the students are provided a “diagnosis” of an ailment and then expected to live as someone who has the condition would. One student’s experience was chronicled in the recent New York Times article, “Experiencing Life, Briefly, Inside a Nursing Home,” written by Katie Zezima.

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    These students are admitted into the nursing home and receive the treatments that a nursing home resident with the same condition received. They are bathed, checked for bed sores, assisted in toileting, and given wheelchairs if their “condition” warranted it. In appropriate situations, lifts are used to help the students out of bed. Students are expected to journal daily about what happened during their stay, which often resulted in their recognizing and getting past their misconceptions of the elderly and/or nursing homes. 

    “Learning by Living” was created in order to generate interest in geriatrics. In describing the importance of recruiting and preparing more geriatricians, Zezima reported, “In 2005, there was one geriatrician for every 5,000 people over 65, according to the American Geriatrics Society; by 2030 that ratio is expected to increase to one for every 8,000 patients. Geriatricians must participate in a two-year fellowship program after medical school to become certified. In 2007, only 253 of 400 fellowship slots were filled, and only 91 of the physicians graduated from medical school in the United States.”

    I think that this program is important not only for future doctors, but also for nursing students who are thinking about working in eldercare. And I also think it would be especially beneficial training for nurse’s aides who are planning on working with Alzheimer’s. I say this because I found in Mom’s case, some of the nurse’s aides really did not attempt to understand what my mother needed and how to relate to her. And I recently spoke with my friend, Pam, whose husband (who has early-onset Alzheimer’s) is an Alzheimer’s facility. Pam relayed how she came across a nurse’s aide who was yanking a resident by the arm to try to get him to come with her rather than wandering.  Pam stopped the aide from using this physical approach, noting that the aide could very easily have caused the resident to fall or break an arm. Instead, Pam taught the aide how to use redirection to help the resident decide on his own to move in the desired direction.

    Participating in programs such as “Learning by Living” can have additional positive outcomes.  The medical student who is followed in the story explained, “When I came in, I was worried about working with older folks because I was afraid I wouldn’t be good at it. Now, if anything, I’m worried I’ll love them too much and it will really hurt to work with folks at the end of their lives.”

Published On: August 25, 2009