Connecting Medical Students & Older Adults through the Grand Friends Program

Katherine Clifford '19, at right, with her Grand Friends.
Katherine Clifford ’19, at right, with her Grand Friends.

I’ve always been fond of people of the older generation. I spent a year after college working at the University of California San Francisco Memory and Aging Center, learning about the neurological effects of Alzheimer’s, dementia, and aging. Having lost all my grandparents when I was young, I’ve missed interacting with older adults on a regular basis. So when I arrived at the University of Vermont for my first year of medical school, I knew I wanted to get involved with the Grand Friends program and engage with older adults in the community.

Grand Friends is a student-senior companionship program which connects medical students with older adults, most of whom are residents at local assisted-living homes. The aim of the program is to foster a connection between students and older adults, to promote student interest in geriatrics and provide perspective on aging, and to decrease social isolation amongst the aging community.

I was matched with a lovely older couple at one of the nearby assisted living residences. I developed a true friendship with my Grand Friends, and have continued to visit them after the end of the fall program. Usually I visit them at their home; we have tea and snacks and just talk. Occasionally we’ll go out for sushi, tea, or walks. They tell me about their lives: their past, their family, and their medical problems. They have opened up to me about the challenges of living with Alzheimer’s disease and of being a caretaker for someone with a memory impairment. I’ve learned so much by just listening. They have been so honest with me about their medical challenges in the hopes that it will make me a better and more insightful doctor. In the fall when I was struggling with the Human Structure & Function course , they bought me an anatomy book to help me with my studies. It was such a sweet gesture, and it made me feel like I had friends in the community and a support system outside of the medical school bubble, despite being so far away from my family in California. They tell me how much they enjoy my visits and that spending time with someone of the younger generation makes them feel young again. While I provide companionship for them, they have certainly provided companionship for me as well.

Most of all I value the connection that I have formed with my Grand Friends. I have also gained a greater understanding of some of the problems facing the aging community. Given an aging population and the inevitability that for most of us, our medical careers will involve caring for older adults, this is a relevant opportunity to our medical education, whether one goes into geriatrics or not. As one of the leaders of the Grand Friends program, I hope that other medical students will choose to participate. This is the second year of the program, and we are currently recruiting student applicants and residents for fall of 2016. Students are matched to residents and participate in five one-hour visits from September through December. The timing and structure of the visits is flexible. Overall, Grand Friends has been a rewarding and fun community service opportunity, and I look forward to continuing to visit my Grand Friends.

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