For more than two decades, the University of New England (UNE) Interdisciplinary Geriatric Education Program (IGEP) has brought students from a variety of health professions together to learn from “elder teachers” in the greater Portland community. This year, the program took a virtual approach.
IGEP is an integral part of the didactic year curriculum in the physician assistant (PA) program, which invites other health profession students from the colleges of pharmacy and dental medicine to join in interprofessional team-building to benefit the elder teachers.
Student teams normally visit independent living sites in the area to interview their assigned elder teacher. But with the pandemic, students were not able to make in-person visits. The PA program decided to set up tele-visits instead with interviews conducted via Zoom.
“Tele-visits were becoming the norm of medicine due to the pandemic,” said Dana Villmore, PhD, PA-C, IGEP course coordinator and assistant clinical professor in the PA program. “We felt that giving students experience on how to do a good tele-visit would be invaluable when they begin going out on rotations.”
Many veteran elder teachers from years past answered the call to join the students via the online platform. To fill in the remaining spots for the 50 teams, the program called on Legacy Scholars from the Center for Excellence in Aging and Health (CEAH), a group of adults aged 55 and older who are participating as subjects in research studies on health and wellness in aging.
Laura Grover, IGEP course assistant, contacted Tom Meuser, PhD, director of CEAH, to start the process of launching the tele-visits with these new participants.
“I always like to say that older adults are the best experts on aging,” said Meuser. “They are living it, after all. Our Legacy Scholars are committed to supporting the research and teaching missions of UNE. I have been so gratified and often amazed at their willingness to step up and volunteer even during a pandemic.”
During the pair of one-hour tele-visits, interprofessional teams of students interviewed the elder teachers to gather their medical history, dental history, medications taken, and what their goals were for the next years to decades of life.
Students then worked together to give advice on how to achieve these goals and what would be appropriate to discuss with their primary care providers and dentists regarding medication, health conditions, and dental care.
While taking part in the program, first-year PA student Tamarah Brousseau realized the need for more social interaction between elder teachers who were experiencing isolation during the pandemic.
“What struck me was hearing how isolated my elder teacher was feeling,” Brousseau said. “I think everyone has felt isolation during the pandemic, but I never thought about how severely it would be affecting the older adults in our community.”
Brousseau then created a pen pal-like community via Zoom called Zoom Pals.
“I wanted to create a space where my elder teacher might be able to meet a new friend in her community that is feeling the same way as she is,” Brousseau said.
Pharmacy students have joined PA students in Zoom Pals, making the experience truly interprofessional, UNE said.
“Zoom Pals was created as a program to help a group of people in our community who needed support, but I soon realized how much levity and joy it brings to the lives of the students as well,” Brousseau said. “So many of us look forward to the conversations with the older adults and the opportunity to learn from their experience and wisdom.”