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A caring touch

Several Parkland social workers, nurses and a physician sit at a conference table. A man sifts through a printout of the upcoming presentation while the woman across from him peels a banana. The others pour a cup of coffee and grab a muffin, a few pieces of fruit from a tray. These tasks they carry out with ease will take on new meaning this morning.

The group is gathered for an aging sensitivity program presented by Vicki DeVault, education coordinator for Parkland’s Department of Geriatrics, as part of a two-day departmental orientation for new hires to Parkland’s Community Oriented Primary Care clinics.

This program aims to create a sense of heightened awareness of the physical, emotional and mental changes older adults experience with age. Learning about changes in mobility, vision, hearing, sense of smell, touch and even taste enhances patient safety and quality of care.

“The whole idea of the program is to help people understand the challenges senior adults face, and with that, helping them to know what they can do to help older adults be as independent as they can be,” says DeVault. “There are many issues that older adults deal with and we want to take a holistic approach.”

The program is separated into two parts – a presentation on how to interact with senior and elderly patients and hands-on activities that bring to life the physical challenges that often accompany aging. The need for such a program is increasing as the number of older adults rises, DeVault says. The 78 million Americans born in the baby boom generation from 1946 to 1964 began hitting retirement age in 2011. By 2030, the number of Americans over the age of 65 is expected to reach 72 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Age sensitivity

DeVault believes Parkland will be well served to prepare for the next generation of aging patients. She tells the story of an older man with ongoing gastrointestinal problems. After numerous efforts were made by doctors and case workers to eliminate his illness, one case worker evaluated the man’s kitchen and found he was eating spoiled canned salmon. Age-related changes in his sense of smell had hindered his ability to detect the odor coming from the salmon, his number of taste buds had declined over time and his vision had deteriorated. The man was unable to recognize that out-of-date food was the source of his gastrointestinal illness.

Everyone experiences aging differently, but some of the most common issues seniors face includes gradual hearing loss, slower response times, difficulty sensing and recognizing pain, loss of vision, difficulty balancing and a hindered sense of smell.

In the training program, props allow Parkland staff to experience some of these effects of aging. Participants start by sorting small imitation “pills” while wearing a pair of arthritis simulation gloves and glasses that simulate such eye problems as macular degeneration, general yellowing and discoloration, glaucoma and cataracts. The gloves make it difficult for most of the participants to open the pill bottle and few are able to accurately sort the pills by color.

DeVault says the experiential part of the program makes a difference because participants are actually able to see what it’s like if you can’t take your medication or get money out of your wallet without help.

In another activity she puts elastic bands around a participant’s ankles to simulate the feeling of arthritis. The participant is given a lightweight walker and a pair of simulation glasses and is tasked with performing everyday activities such as opening a door, walking down a hallway and trying to fit into a bathroom stall with the walker.

Making a difference

Taunya Chatman, a medical assistant at Parkland’s Irving Health Center, says the hands-on aspect of the program is compelling – particularly with regard to the vision changes seniors experience.

“(This program) will help me to be more open, warm, friendly and understanding toward seniors,” she says. “It will help me to put myself in their shoes.”

Margret Singameni, a pediatric and adult social worker also based at Irving Health Center, says she agrees with Chatman. “By putting on different gear you’re able to understand on a much more intimate level the issues that seniors face on a day-to-day basis. You can see the challenges they experience in daily tasks.”

As the program comes to an end, the group is asked to reflect on what they’ve learned so that they may better serve Parkland’s older adult patients. One woman speaks candidly and emotionally about how she can now understand what her late father was going through in the last years of his life.

“When I do this program, people say, ‘I don’t want to get old,’ and certainly there are many changes that will happen as we age,” says DeVault. “But there are also resources out there that will help people to be as independent as they can. This program brings a real-life element to people – not just here at Parkland but also in their personal lives.”

By Cortney Strube

 

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