By Christin Senior | October 23, 2018 11:01 am

Jill Beals, a UCF physical therapy doctoral student, smiled as Don, her 79-year-old volunteer, talked about his love for hiking and kayaking.  “It sounds like you’re pretty active,” she said.

“Probably too active.” Don replied, pointing to the left foot he bruised on a recent river rafting trip.

Don’s job this day was to help UCF healthcare students better understand how to care for active older adults. He talked to them about his prescriptions (he’s not on any), his social life (he has a girlfriend) and how much time he spends in the sun.

The exercise was part of UCF’s interprofessional education program (IPE), now in its fifth year, which brings together students and faculty from UCF medical, nursing, physical therapy, social work and counseling, and the University of Florida’s pharmacy programs. The goal is to develop students’ communication and teamwork skills so they work better with other healthcare professionals in the real world of medicine.

This particular IPE experience was unique because students worked with real people, not actors. The volunteers were part of the Learning Institute for Elders (LIFE) at UCF group, which provides educational experiences for adults ages 50 and older. LIFE members said they volunteered because they hoped their lifetime experiences – medical and otherwise – would help train tomorrow’s healthcare providers.

Groups of interprofessional students interviewed each volunteer and then worked with multidisciplinary faculty members to create individual wellness plans for each volunteer. For Don, students wanted him to be aware of his risk for skin cancer because of his lifetime of outdoor activity.

“You said you got burned a lot as a kid and had a lot of sun exposure,” Sohum Patel, a third-year medical student, told Don. “We know that exposure in your teens and 20s is the most significant risk factor for late-age skin cancer. So that’s just something you’ll need to consider as well.”

Several students said the hands-on, interdisciplinary experience taught them what other experts bring to the table when it comes to healthcare.

“They asked really important questions that maybe I wouldn’t think to ask,” said Anh Truong, a physical therapy doctoral student. “If the patient’s hip hurts, or if they’re falling all the time, well, those are things I can help with. But counselors, for example, talk more about coping strategies and the patient’s support system, which are other factors that can affect treatment outcomes.”

By working with older adults, students said they were able to dispel their own misconceptions about aging.

“Our client was 80 years old. She biked 30 miles a week and walked five miles a day,” said Patrick Healy, a UCF nursing student.  “So I learned to never assume that older adults are sedentary, and to always ask about what’s going on in their life, because some of them are more active than even we young people are.”

Students in the program are able to learn how lifestyle choices affect quality-of-life as a person ages, said Dr. Denise Kay, who oversees the IPE program.  And that’s knowledge that they can pass on to their future patients.

“Beyond genetics, you can see the kinds of things these seniors are doing,” Dr. Kay said. “It’s the habits that you develop today that will determine whether you’re going to be biking five miles a day or climbing Mount Everest when you are their age.”

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