Patients, relationships draw students to geriatric care

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Posted: June 9, 2007
The making of a geriatrician can start in a lot of places, in a loving family surrounded by grandparents or a medical school lecture hall listening to an inspiring doctor.
For Rishi Parmar, 26, a second-year student at the Medical College of Wisconsin, it began during weekly visits to a nursing home, where he sat and talked with a retired chemical engineer, listened to a lifetime of stories, and got hooked on the majesty, mystery and difficulty of aging.

“Culturally, we have to value older people,” said Parmar, who was born in India and raised in Bellingham, Wash. “We should think more of old people, of their life experience, wisdom. You have to think what they actually have. Just because they are not making a lot of money, are not chief executive officers, doesn’t mean they are not valued members of our society.”

America may need an army of geriatricians to treat an aging population, but recruiting such an army is difficult and time consuming.

If all goes as planned, Parmar will become a geriatrician in 2014. He is finishing a one-year term as president of the Medical College of Wisconsin’s student chapter of the American Geriatrics Society.

Parmar’s mission is to get other students involved in aging issues. They may not be geriatricians, but they’ll all be dealing with the baby boom generation, he said.

Parmar ticks off a familiar list of reasons why students stay away from the field – relatively low compensation compared with other specialties and a lack of understanding about treating elderly patients.

“People think old people are diseased people and that you can’t help them,” Parmar said. “But this is clearly not the case. You are predisposed to certain diseases, but that doesn’t mean you will get them.”

‘Genuine relationship’
Angelo Taleon, 39, is drawn to older patients, drawn to the work of being a geriatrician. A native of the Philippines, Taleon is completing a combined four-year Medicine Geriatrics residency at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

“I like the type of patients,” he said. “They are sincere people who want to be treated.”

And he said the geriatric practice is a throwback to “the genuine patient-doctor relationship. They trust you, listen to you.” And Taleon has to know about his patients. Do they have a power of attorney? Do they have a support system?

“You have to know more of the patient than just their name or their disease,” he said.

Taleon said the field will gain in importance as the medical profession focuses on extending the quality of life. But attracting people with a passion for the field may continue to be difficult, he said.

“It’s tough to sell a love for something,” he said. “But there is a lot of opportunity, a lot of openings.”

Carol Wood, 54, completing her four-year residency at the Medical College of Wisconsin, has the passion for geriatrics. After stints in marketing and personnel, she’s embarking on a third career as a baby boomer providing care for other boomers – and their parents.

“Everyone in every specialty will have a senior population,” said Wood, who came to Milwaukee from Chicago.

A mentor at medical school got her interested in the field. So did interaction with patients.

Wood said she was surprised by “the number of people in their 90s who are so vital and vibrant.” But she was also challenged by the different types of memory lapses than can affect the elderly and how just changing the environment can help patients cope.

During her residency, she learned two important lessons about healthy aging.

“Try not to fall,” she said. “And do some kind of physical activity.”

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