Engaged in Life: Promoting Active Aging
"I've never met a boring 85-year-old," says Kate Callahan, MD, associate director of the clinical geriatrics fellowship program, "and I love the academic challenges and rewards of studying and caring for older adults."
Franklin Watkins, MD, medical director for the Acute Care for the Elderly (ACE) unit, adds, "House calls are probably my favorite part of our program. We have an opportunity to deliver an 'old-fashioned' but very powerful approach to medicine by visiting our patients with our doctor bags in hand, getting to know the patient in the home environment."
Geriatrics (the health care of older adults) and gerontology (the study of the aging process) require not only exceptional medical expertise to diagnose complicated and often interrelated health issues, but also strong, personal compassion and empathy for older patients and their families. Here at the Sticht Center, the specialists are acutely aware of the challenges they face, and seem genuinely called to take them on.
Consider Hal Atkinson, MD: Since his days visiting elderly aunts and grandparents as a youth, and then working as an orderly in college, he has valued the wisdom of older patients and felt they needed more advocates. Now, as a geriatrician and director of the internal medicine residency program, he devotes his skills to ensuring that other medical professionals are prepared for the intricacies of caring for older patients.
Combining Research, Education and Clinical Care
This collaborative atmosphere not only enriches the program as a whole, but also the experience of individual doctors. Callahan explains, "The reason I came to Wake Forest was the opportunity to combine research, education and clinical care. The research informs the way we teach and also the way we diagnose and treat people."
Research studies, treatment programs and the medical education curriculum are guided by three words: "Promote active aging." This means maintaining the highest quality of life and the highest possible physical and cognitive function—whether the patient is a 90-year-old who still plays tennis or a nursing facility patient who wants to go outside for a moment of fresh air.
Understanding When Less is More
Watkins explains that when it comes to his patients, "age does not define the person—it is simply a number. It's the function that defines where the patient is, and optimizing function is our goal—physical, cognitive and social function."
"When you go through the fire with a family, you become a part of their lives," Watkins says. "I had a case where a son brought his mother in from another part of the region. She was delirious and acutely confused. His words were, 'we're losing her.' We examined her and her history, talked with her son, and found that she had a fairly simple urinary tract infection and pneumonia, but she also had accumulated far too many medications.
"We were able to adjust and discontinue some of them, and within two days she was speaking normally. Sometimes less is more in achieving improved quality of life."
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