Adapting to Health Change

A Program that Encourages Empathy for Seniors

Understanding how elderly patients adjust to the challenges of diminishing physical and mental capabilities is the focus of a program for the 150 first-year University of Oklahoma Health Science Center medical students. During a three-hour session called Adapting to Health Change, medical students undertake several daily tasks to help them better comprehend the monumental effort often needed by seniors to remain independent.

The class is far different from the usual didactic studies students encounter in medical school. The unique element of the exercise becomes evident when students assume "roles" in the form of a diagnosis(es) and are subsequently outfitted with the appropriate trappings to experience them. For instance, gloved hands simulate neuropathy and various vision limiting goggles imitate glaucoma, cataracts, and macular degeneration. Other props, including wheelchairs, walkers, cervical collars, and knee immobilizers, help the students replicate the physical impediments of diseases associated with aging like Parkinson's disease and stroke.

Five Activities

Several department staff members and volunteers guide the student-patients through five activities designed to mimic everyday tasks seniors regularly encounter. With their "limitations," the student find that opening pill bottles, along with reading and responding to medical bills, rate high in difficulty and many wonder how elderly patients with physical limitations are able to handle the tasks.

At the food station, students have the opportunity to make a simple recipe and drink a can of a nutritional supplement commonly prescribed by physicians, for which comments range from "yuck" to "not bad." Equipped with earplugs or headphones to imitate hearing loss, the students attempt to listen to a technical lecture, which is similar to a patient listening to a doctor's instructions. Students also go to a clothing station where they have to dress while restricted to a chair with their fingers taped and splinted approximating arthritis and other restrictive hand problems related to aging.

Debriefing Session

Following the activities, the students gather with the instructors and volunteers to discuss their experience.

With a resigned sigh, one student complains about the sweaty discomfort of wearing Depends (all participants wear the disposable briefs during the exercise), and another student said the popcorn in his shoes simulating rheumatoid arthritis "drove me nuts." Dr. Germaine Odenheimer and Dr. Saleem Qureshi, the medical advisors, encourage students to bring up the subject of incontinence with their older patients saying "patients often think incontinence is untreatable and fail to discuss the problem with their physician."

Laughter and grimaces abound when the students realize that several of them included a wife's prescription when setting-up a week's supply of pills for a fictional male patient. Student Taylor Lancaster suggests "the pharmacists could place the prescriptions of male patients in a different colored container than female patients." Everyone agrees this is very clever and maybe Taylor should patent the idea.

Empathy for the changes that people encounter during the aging process, along with developing common sense methods for helping patients cope with diminishing physical and mental abilities is the heart of the Adapting to Health Change program. "The idea is to get them to identify with what some of their patients experience and to start thinking about ways to help patients adjust to their limitations," explains John Belzer, Ph.D., program orginator.