New Hampshire/Vermont Schweitzer Fellows Emily Forbes-Mobus and Alison Mercier both speak fondly of the many load-lightening moments they have witnessed between visitors to the Queen City Memory Café in Burlington, VT, a monthly social gathering for people with memory impairment and their caregivers: A group of rusty hula-hoopers erupting with laughter as they attempt to get their hips moving. A mother and daughter sharing stories as they sift through family photos. Another pair playing games on a tablet device.
“So much of the experience for families affected by Alzheimer’s and dementia is one of loss,” says Emily. “This is a fantastic way for caregivers and their loved ones to come together and have fun in a memory impairment-friendly environment.”
“The time caregivers and those with Alzheimer’s disease spend socializing together probably strengthens the bonds of their relationship, and positively affects the caregiver’s ability to take care of the patient,” Alison says. “The best part of the whole café is that it’s not about caregiver/patient relationships―everyone who visits the café is seen and treated as a human being, together engaging in whatever goofy, challenging or seemingly random activity that is on the agenda for the day.”
Emily and Alison, both students at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, are volunteering at the café as part of their Schweitzer Fellowship project. Their work is informing their development of a curriculum that can be used as a prerequisite for UVM undergrads participating in service learning courses and internships which involve working with the aging population.
In addition to volunteering at the café, the two are also drawing on their experiences facilitating caregiver support groups and healthy aging workshops for the Vermont Alzheimer’s Association, and shadowing psychologists and neurologists at the UVM Medical Center Memory Program, to develop the curriculum.
“The focus of the curriculum will be an introduction to intergenerational work, with emphasis on normal and abnormal aging and changes in cognition,” says Emily. “The curriculum has multiple components including hands-on activities along with readings and short videos which we believe will deliver the information in a way that is both engaging and effective.”
Both Fellows believe that training students to work effectively with elders will increase the pool of desperately needed volunteers at elder service agencies in the region—a need they discovered when they reached out to the Vermont Alzheimer’s Association early in their fellowship and learned that many of the organization’s programs were dormant due to a lack of volunteers.
“We hope to create a more supportive, engaged, and informed community of individuals armed to effectively care for older adults with or without cognitive impairment,” says Alison. “Specifically, we hope to expose younger adults to intergenerational work with a foundation that gives them more confidence in their interactions.”
Emily and Alison’s project grew out their longstanding commitments to serving the elderly community. Prior to enrolling in medical school, Alison worked for three years assisting low-income seniors in accessing and navigating the social service and health care system.
“I’ve witnessed empowered seniors make healthy changes, advocate for themselves, and share their gifts with others while also being confronted with the oft-prevailing sentiment that seniors are unable to be independent and unable to productively contribute to society,” she says. “I’m committed to changing this paradigm, and saw this project as another opportunity to do that.”
Emily’s experiences with older adults inspired her to pursue a medical career. As a youth, she enjoyed the company of her grandparents, great-grandparents, and elderly neighbors and friends. As an undergraduate she volunteered at an assisted living facility and an adult day health center.
“I especially appreciated working with the dementia patients―talking with them, laughing with them, helping to calm them, and even just having meals with them were some of the most rewarding experiences that I have ever had,” Emily says. “The Alzheimer’s community is particularly near and dear to my heart as one of my great-grandmothers suffered from Alzheimer’s when I was young. I saw how gravely it affected my grandmother and her sisters.”
Emily and Alison are hopeful that their project will foster a lasting interest in intergenerational work among undergraduates. They are working with UVM undergraduate students and professors to ensure that students are made aware of the curriculum’s existence beyond their Fellowship year. “With the structure of the curriculum already built, it will be easy for future Schweitzer Fellows or other interested persons to add on or make changes as necessary,” says Emily.
Both Emily and Alison agree that their Fellowship project has given them significant insight and hands-on experience that has better prepared them to tackle the complex needs of the elderly population in their future medical careers.
“The Fellowship has allowed me to focus on service in the aging population in a way that would not otherwise have been possible,” says Emily. “The face-to-face interactions during workshops and support groups with older adults and caregivers are invaluable. Having the ability to get a better sense of what my older patients go through is an amazing opportunity, and it will help me to better serve the aging community as a healthcare provider.”
“Being a Schweitzer Fellow to me means I am committing to my community, prioritizing service as a modicum for learning almost akin to my classroom and clerkship medical education,” Alison says. “While a great amount of learning occurs in the classroom, I understand the value of interactions beyond the classroom manifesting an understanding of science and disease in the context of the environment in which people live. Engaging in the community allows me to learn about the unique challenges impacting seniors’ health from a different perspective, achieving a more holistic view of the meaning of wellbeing.”