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Panelists at Silver Tsunami event.

The Schwartz Center: How to Deliver Compassionate Care to the Silver Tsunami

  • At the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Care's most recent MCPHS—Boston event, a set of three panelists offered insight on how to deliver empathetic care to an aging population. The panelists, comprised of two MCPHS students and a University of Massachusetts–Boston (UMass–Boston) faculty member, spoke to students about forming meaningful connections with older patients and challenged the audience to reconsider what makes a person "old."

    The first panelist, Miji Kim, spoke of her time spent working in a nursing home. She explained that, though the nursing home's administration instructed her not to connect with patients, she bonded with an older female resident who had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Miji loved hearing about the patient's life and the stories of her youth, and she found herself spending more and more time in the patient's room. The resident was grateful for the company, but began to confuse Miji for her daughter as her condition progressed.

    After several months, the patient's condition continued to worsen, and she eventually passed away. Miji was left feeling heartbroken and distraught. She suddenly understood why the nursing home administration asked her to keep her distance, emotionally, from the patients—they were often ill and near the end of their life, and forming a bond with them made the staff vulnerable to heartache. However, Miji was grateful to have developed such a strong relationship with the patient. Through her grief, she found comfort in learning the value of delivering compassionate, humanistic care to older populations.

    "Healthcare professionals should stay by patients' sides when things are difficult so that they feel less alone. Integrating compassion is essential to making the unbearable, bearable," said Miji.

    The second panelist, Lindsay Odonohoe, talked through her experience working as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) at a nursing home. The facility, which was home to patients of different ages, conditions, and levels of mobility, was understaffed and mismanaged. Patients were often handled without consideration for their wellbeing, resulting in injuries and insufficient care.

    "It was a place of care that became a place of stress," said Lindsay.

    Despite her unfavorable working conditions and the negative attitude of her coworkers, Lindsay was determined to ensure that patients received thoughtful, comprehensive care. She snuck patients their favorite snacks, asked them about their families, and chatted with them about the adventures of their youth. These interactions opened her eyes to the power of small acts of kindness, and made her consider ways that nursing homes can be reformed to offer elderly individuals better care.

    "It would be great if nursing homes could have separate wings for residents requiring acute care and those that just need skill-based care," said Lindsay. "That would help staff give each patient the care they need."

    The final panelist, UMass–Boston Professor Ellen Birchander, used her time to engage directly with the audience. She posed questions related to aging and older people, such as, "What percent of people over 65 live in nursing homes?" The crowd yelled back their responses, calling out percentages between 10 and 40.

    "4 percent," responded Professor Birchander.

    Just as she suspected, the audience was surprised—the room, full of predominately 18 to 25-year-olds, thought of 65 as being eons away and therefore "past a person's prime." And this, the inherent ageism of society, was the crux of Professor Birchander's argument.

    "People become old when they start to experience negative social referencing," said Profession Birchander. "They get old when they feel that they can't contribute."

    As she posed more thought-provoking questions and continued to challenge students' perspectives, Professor Birchander brought the event to a close by asking the audience to do more than just deliver compassionate care to the elderly. She asked the students to see beyond someone's gray hair, or wrinkled skin, or shaking hands, and to place genuine value in society's older individuals.

    "All of these people have stories—just like you. You don't know what they have to offer you, and the lessons you can learn from older people are amazing."