Emory University
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Age (not-old) Advice

A mentoring program at Emory pairs seniors in the community with medical and nursing students to share lessons in aging.

By Rhonda Mullen, Photography by Jack Kearse

Story Photo

Charlotte Slovis-Cooper and Jacob Khoubian

Old souls but young at heart: That’s what they share in common, along with busy schedules and a friendship that spans the generations. Jack Kearse

She's 69. He's 24.
She's conservative. He's liberal.
She's from Tennessee. He's from California.

But when it comes down to it, Charlotte Slovis-Cooper and Jacob Khoubian share more in common than not. "Sometimes I'm an old soul but young at heart," Khoubian says. "She's like that too."

Khoubian met Cooper last year at the beginning of his first year as a medical student at Emory. She was his mentor in a pilot program that paired medical and nursing students with older adults to allow both to benefit.

The program gave students a chance to practice communication skills that are vital to good clinicians and to develop professionalism early in their training. Within their first weeks of school, they were getting to know their assigned mentors and already discussing sensitive health and personal information.

For seniors like Cooper, the program gave them a chance to share decades of valuable wisdom and to dispel stereotypes about aging. "Sometimes people look at you and all they see is gray hair," says Cooper. "Then they put you into a whole different category. But this program lets the students see how active we are in body and mind. It gives them a different perspective of the word ‘old.'"

Mind the gap

From the get-go, Khoubian knew that his conversations with Cooper were different from those with his grandparents. The first assignment of the curriculum—getting to know each other—got the two off to a good start. Khoubian learned that Cooper has a twin brother and an older sister. She belongs to two book clubs, a walking group, and an athletic club. She enjoys concerts, plays, and visits to museums and also volunteers at the Toco Hills NORC (naturally occurring retirement community) and a local senior center. Her husband isn't eligible to participate in the program because he is 10 years her junior.

"We talked about all sorts of things—her health, friends, decisions about what she wants for the future. We definitely had a very real discussion," says Khoubian of the monthly meetings that took place over the course of the year.

The program, with funding from Emory's Center for Community Partnerships, goes beyond the boundaries of the clinical rotations that will come later, giving students an intimate look into the daily lives of senior adults outside the hospital or clinic setting. It lets them see older adults as people as opposed to patients.

It is one project of the Atlanta Regional Geriatric Education Center (ARGEC)—one of 44 centers funded nationally by the Health Resources and Services Administration to improve education of health professionals and in turn better the lives of older adults. The ARGEC is a partnership among Emory's schools of medicine, nursing, and public health along with Morehouse School of Medicine, Georgia State University, and the Atlanta Regional Commission. It serves the 10-county Atlanta metro area.

One of the ARGEC's goals is to fill gaps in the education of future clinicians. Community-based learning and engagement are prerequisites for informed practitioners, says Emory geriatrician Jonathan Flacker, who helped design the senior mentoring program. "The health of older people is strongly related to the communities where they live," he says.

The program is intentionally multidisciplinary, teaching students to work in teams across the clinical professions. This fall it expanded to include physician assistant students at Emory.

"Getting 20-year-olds to talk to 80-year-olds is illuminating," says Ellen Idler, who teaches epidemiology of aging classes at Emory's Rollins School of Public Health. One of her students showed older adults at Wesley Woods Towers, a senior independent-living community, how to get on Facebook. Another interviewed a resident at A.G. Rhodes, a nursing home on the Wesley Woods campus, for an assignment and returned a week later to play checkers, bringing along another student for her older friend to meet.

Pass the BBQ and a lifetime of experience

In July, Flacker and his co-planners began analyzing feedback from the participants to evaluate the pilot year and improve the program for the coming year. But to judge from reactions of seniors and students at a BBQ celebration held at a local park to discuss the program's first year, the overwhelming response was positive. Not only had the seniors and students shared dreams, activities, and health information but they also had developed friendships that promise to outlast the official boundaries of the program.

Groups of mentors and students clustered around a picnic table, chatting noisily.

So how is your wife?

Did your grandson get home from school okay?

Where have you been? I was wondering the same thing. Where have you been?

One group that included husband-and-wife mentors Jack and Stella DeLeon were planning what they dubbed "some postgraduate education" with their medical student mentees at their home in Big Canoe, Ga. Will they volunteer to mentor again next year? "Yeah," comes Jack DeLeon's resounding answer. But his mentee chimes in, "I don't know if you'll like the newbies as much as us."

As for Cooper, she pauses for a moment in a conversation with Khoubian about his upcoming trip home for his sister's wedding, to add her own perspective on the mentoring program.

"We don't feel left out any more," she says. "We feel we're being listened to."

And like a good Jewish mother she adds, "Jacob is superb. He's going to be a wonderful doctor. I love him."  EH

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