No matter what our gender, ethnicity or economic status is, no matter where we live or what we do day-to-day, we all share one commonality: We age – and Americans are increasingly getting older. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 40.3 million U.S. residents were 65 years and older in the 2010 census and more than 54 million reached that status by July 1, 2019. By 2050, that number is expected to grow to almost 90 million.
That shifting demographic has major implications for health care. And because we’re all aging, we all have a vested interest in fostering future health care professionals who are capable of and comfortable taking care of older adults. That’s the goal of Connecting Older Adults to Students, or COATS, a program at Des Moines University that facilitates one-to-one relationships between active older adults in the greater Des Moines area and DMU students pursuing degrees in medicine and the health sciences.
Matthew Mahoney, a member of the DMU osteopathic medicine program’s Class of 2022, founded the program in August 2019 with the help of Paul Volker, M.D., FAAFP, assistant professor of family and internal medicine, and DMU’s community relations department. Matthew describes a 2006 study about a similar program at the University of South Carolina that demonstrated the value of connecting medical students with older adults.
“It showed that before they put the senior mentor program in place, 69.5 percent of students agreed with the geriatric’s objectives, meaning they felt comfortable caring for older adults, and after students had the chance to participate, over 90 percent of students were comfortable caring for older adults,” he says. “If that truly happens here at DMU, we’ll have graduates much better prepared to care for our aging population.”
While the program has occurred virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic, it still entailed monthly events, September through May, that featured lunch-and-learn sessions followed by one-to-one conversations between student “mentees” and their older mentors. The sessions covered a variety of topics, such as exercise, end-of-life issues, falls prevention and elder abuse. Megan Ellis and Kate Finneran, two of DMU’s osteopathic manual medicine fellows, led a recent session on osteopathic self-treatments to promote health and fight the coronavirus.
“When the session started, not many on the Zoom call were participating in the self-treatments exercises Megan and Kate were modeling, but as the session progressed, more and more started to engage,” says Hanna de Geest, community and public affairs manager. “By the very end you could see every older adult mentor on the call performing the self-treatment exercises. I even got a call later on in the day from a participant who told me she loved them so much she spent the afternoon teaching them to her husband.”
Carlye Marshall, a first-year student in DMU’s physician assistant program and member of the Geriatrics Club, says she “coerced” her maternal grandparents to participate in the program this past year. She also is a COATS mentee with Bev West, who learned about the program when she attended DMU’s Mini Medical School.
“I have really enjoyed getting to know her,” Carlye says. “We relate on so many things even though we’re 50 years apart.”
The feeling is mutual. As a former employee of Wesley Acres, a retirement community adjacent to the DMU campus, Bev found DMU students to be “bright and inquisitive” in her past interactions with them. She also enjoys volunteering and has been interested in medicine since she was a child.
“Especially as COVID-19 caused human contact to be much more limited, this was an easy way to connect,” she says. “It’s been so pleasant to get to know Carlye. I’m interested in her schooling and where she’ll go next year. She’s easy to talk to and a good listener. It’s been a really good experience for me, and I’ll participate again.”
Given her career experience, Bev understands the importance of exposing current and aspiring health care providers to people of all ages.
“COATS gives students the chance to interact with someone outside of their age group. They need to learn to interact with all kinds of people,” she says. “Especially for people on their own, the older they get, their friends die. This program gives participants opportunities to engage, learn and talk about their experiences.”
DMU is eager to have more older adults participate in COATS, which will begin its third year in September. Want to enjoy connecting with an aspiring health professional, share your experiences and gain information in the process? Fill out the COATS form here.