New Outreach Program for Patients with Dementia
Imagine that day by day you lose small pieces of your life and selfhood to a disease that is irreversible. Once respected, you now find yourself increasingly marginalized and ever aware that this thief of live will lead you to death. You are a patient with dementia.
There is no cure for dementia but there are ways to foster empathy from your healthcare team.
Faculty at Northwestern University (USA) has created an outreach program that pairs each medical student with a patient struggling with dementia. The hope is to foster empathy and understanding in medical students without them needing extensive clinical experience. However, patients benefit from this program too. According to the CBC News article, approximately 75 percent of medical students in the program will work with patients suffering from Alzheimer’s and associated forms of dementia.
Partnering Dementia Patients with Med Students
An illustrative example is the partnership of Jared Worthington and Dan Winship. Matched through the outreach program based on common interests, the two have formed a solid relationship based on mutual respect. Winship is a retired doctor with early-stage dementia. He describes his decline as “wreaking havoc” on his life but the outreach program “gives patients a sense of purpose and a chance to stay socially engaged before their illness eventually robs their minds.”
Winship and Worthington have been getting to know one another by meeting socially. The two often discuss medicine, as Winship spent his career teaching medicine at Loyola University in Chicago, at Rush Medical College and at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Beth Kallmyer, a vice-president at the Alzheimer’s Association adds that programs like the one at Northwestern University “help erase the stigma of Alzheimer’s and are laudable for introducing students to medical opportunities related to aging and dementia.”
Combatting Alzheimer’s With Empathy
As Canada’s population ages, every doctor will likely experience patients who have various kinds of dementia, including Alzheimer’s. It is the hope of the university faculty and as well as Alzheimer’s stakeholders that outreach programs like Northwestern’s will prove effective in fostering long term understanding and empathy of affected patients, so that patients and their families can access doctors who truly understand and advocate for these unique patient needs.
So far, the program is making a positive impact in the lives of both patients and medical students. As Worthington states, “It’s something scary and difficult but just because you have Alzheimer’s doesn’t mean that … your life is over. You can still contribute and give back and participate meaningfully.” As both he and Winship state in the article, through harnessing the power of empathy with programs like this one, perhaps researchers can start to unravel the mystery of Alzheimer’s and dementia.