Objective: To introduce medical students to a healthy elderly population and present the health care challenges in this population.
Description: As medical education has begun to focus more on our aging population and their future health needs, the University of South Carolina School of Medicine has developed a senior mentor program. This program provides a longitudinal experience for undergraduate students with local elders. The program, currently in its second year, will provide multiple opportunities for students to follow their same senior mentors over a four-year period both in the home and in the clinical setting. In partnership with the division of geriatrics, healthy patients over 65 were recruited to serve as senior mentors. Students, mostly in pairs, were assigned either one senior mentor or a couple, whom they met for the first time at the beginning of the second semester of their first year. Using a multidisciplinary approach, modules have been developed so students can learn how their senior mentors function on a daily basis, thus assessing the whole person, their health, their medical needs, their life-styles, and their social and physical environments. During the first year, students meet with their senior mentors four times and complete modules that address the physiology of aging, medical history taking, mental status examination, and psychological issues involving growing old. The modules were designed to coordinate with other areas of the curriculum where these concepts are being taught so that the students have an opportunity to put them into practice. Students check their senior mentors' blood pressures and write up their findings and thoughts about aging during each visit. In the second year the students meet with their senior mentors six times. Modules include assessing the senior mentors' diets; developing a behavioral modification plan in the first semester; and performing an environmental safety check, physical examination, and medication evaluation. The modules are coordinated with the curriculum and involve student consultation with our nutritionist and pharmacists. As the students enter their third and fourth years they will be expected to continue to meet with their senior mentors, to discuss issues concerning death and dying and advance directives, and to accompany their mentors to a physician visit.
Discussion: The responses from students, senior mentors, and faculty have been overwhelmingly positive. Students have enjoyed the early clinical experience, senior mentors have enjoyed meeting and talking to the students, and the faculty are pleased with the ability to integrate classroom material into a clinical setting early in the curriculum. Difficulties have arisen as some of our senior mentors have become ill and in the coordination of schedules between senior mentors and students. The plan is to continue the program as a permanent part of the curriculum. The hope is that it will be seen as a model for increasing the focus on geriatrics and early clinical experiences in the curriculum.
Peer-reviewed Collection of Reports on Innovative Approaches to Medical Education