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Students Buddy With Alzheimer’s Patients

Jennifer Wegerer
By Jennifer WegererAugust 15, 2013

Medical students may receive generalized training for Alzheimer’s care. But what about understanding Alzheimer’s from the patient’s perspective? Universities are tackling this issue through Buddy Programs that put Alzheimer’s patients in charge.

Medical Students with ALZ PatientsSixteen years ago, Northwestern University in Chicago developed a Buddy Program through its Alzheimer’s Disease Center. Continuing to today, the program pairs first-year medical students with Alzheimer’s patients for a year. Buddies spend a minimum of four hours a month together, sharing meals and enjoying activities, such as visiting museums, shopping, exercising or just having conversations over coffee.

Other universities have followed suit with their own Buddy Programs. Through these programs, students gain experience working with Alzheimer’s patients and insight into how this disease affects them. They’re able to hone in on the personal aspects of the disease and its challenges.

Goals of Alzheimer’s Buddy Programs

Northwestern’s Buddy Program began as a way to empower Alzheimer’s patients, making them mentors to the students. But it turned into something more than a standard senior care solution. It gave students a non-clinical experience of Alzheimer’s. And that experience has helped students:

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  • Become more sensitive to the unique effects Alzheimer’s on seniors
  • Change their preconceived notions of dementia
  • Incorporate the Alzheimer’s patient’s viewpoint into their own

Essentially, students are able to see patients beyond their disease and better understand them as human beings.

Inspiring Students to Specialize

Another outcome of the Buddy Program–the potential for more geriatric specialists.

According to the American Geriatrics Society, around 7,500 certified geriatric specialists work in the United States today. But we need more than double that number (approximately 17,000) to provide specialized senior care solutions for the country’s 12 million older adults.

Experts familiar with Northwestern’s Buddy Program hope that it will inspire more students to pursue specialized geriatrics training. At a minimum, it will make students who go into primary care more aware of Alzheimer’s. That outcome should improve early diagnoses in the future.

Finding Alzheimer’s Buddy Programs

In addition to Northwestern, Boston University, Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, Washington University in St. Louis and Harvard College offer Alzheimer’s Buddy Programs for medical students. The University of Wisconsin and University of Kansas will begin their own versions of the program this fall.

Do you know a medical student or senior who has been involved with a Buddy Program? Please share your comments below.

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Jennifer Wegerer
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