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Studying residents—up close

May 12, 2014
by Kathleen Mears
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After I moved to a nursing home, I wondered why nursing students did not do their clinical training there. I think all healthcare students could broaden their education by observing residents surviving, living, thriving—and also dying in nursing homes. Over the years I learned much from the residents with whom I lived. Healthcare students are missing out. If students had been trained in that facility, both students and residents would have benefited.

While researching, I found a 2009 New York Times article about the University of New England’s (Biddeford, Maine) Medical Program which requires medical students to live as a nursing home resident for two weeks. The idea came from a previous student who felt students needed time with seniors to see how they felt about the field of geriatrics.

Kristen, a medical student, explained that she assumed a diagnosis of breathing problems and partial paralysis from a stroke. She used a wheelchair and her movements were restricted. Aides transferred her with a lift. They undressed, bathed and dressed her which she found uncomfortable. She ate puréed facility food and slept in a resident bed.

After developing friendships with residents, one thing puzzled her. She could not understand why those who could walk—but had pain—would give up walking to sit in a wheelchair. Kristen’s constant use of a wheelchair made her feel confined and she was surprised the other residents did not feel that way.

Since few physicians specialize in gerontology, the University of New England wants their medical students to experience nursing home life up close. Kristen had many conversations with a retired internal medicine physician/resident. He told her his specialty had been arthritis and that now rheumatoid arthritis, which he had diagnosed for years, was slowly killing him. Since there was little else for her to do but talk with other residents, she got to know them well. She said her conversations with the retired physician were invaluable.

In further research I found an article about Dennison (Ohio) University's freshman art class partnering with a Newark, Ohio nursing home. The art students’ assignment was to get to know a resident and then paint his or her portrait. When the portraits were unveiled, one looked exactly like the female resident subject sitting beside it. Another had caricature flair, still another a modern art vein, and at least one had the Andy Warhol style with bright colors.

A couple of the art students spoke about the relationships they formed with their models. One female student said she was touched by the female resident whose portrait she painted. She said the woman had a rough life before she lived in a nursing home and remained upbeat despite the fact that she had no family to visit her. Another student shared that his portrait subject was a happy-go-lucky fellow full of jokes and laughs.

Elders once were admired for their wisdom. They had lived a long life and experienced much. Survival takes determination. Residents who thrive in a cooperative, institutional facility have a particular kind of resilience. Two very different types of students were able to experience it firsthand and learn from it.



Kathleen Mears

Kathleen Mears has been a nursing home resident in Ohio for 20 years. She is an incomplete...