All across the U.S. medical students are getting a dose of education they won’t find in any classroom. There’s a new initiative being launched to fight the stigma of older people that’s being instilled in doctors before they examine their first patient. The program, Introduction to the Geriatric Patient, is using senior citizens to illustrate just how dangerous it can be for doctors to approach older patients with a notion of what ‘normal’ should be.

“Unfortunately, most education takes place within the hospital,” said Dr. Ronald Adelman, co-chief of geriatrics at Weill Cornell, and one of the developers of the initiative. “If you’re only seeing the hospitalized elderly, you’re seeing the debilitated, the physically deteriorating, and the demented. It’s easy to pick up ageist stereotypes.”

Such assumptions are not only unfair to patients, they can also be dangerous. A physician who writes off vague symptoms as mere consequences of old age could miss critical clues toward a bigger problem. One participant revealed that what one doctor diagnosed as run-of-the-mill fatigue due to her age turned out to be an infection that wasn’t picked up until she switched physicians.

The program uses active seniors and even performers to drive home the importance of listening to a patient without bias. Through their stories, the speakers paint pictures of active and vibrant lives—ageless experiences that would not sound out of place from a much younger storyteller. The point is to illustrate the fact that seniors are not simply a mishmash of aches, pains and exhaustion. People of all ages can be vibrant with healthy, active lives. The old writing trope that urges people to ‘show, not tell’ comes to mind—it’s hard to show your doctor an accurate picture of an active life, so it’s important that they listen to what you’re telling them.

The program has spread to over 20 medical schools across the country—in some cases students listen to a short lecture from senior patients, in others they are given patients to follow for the duration of their education. And it’s shining a huge light on the problem of seeing patients as a number rather than a person.

“It’s important that they don’t think life stops as you get older,” said Elizabeth Shepard, an actress who was invited to speak about her life as an older adult to assembled medical students. “So I decided I would be frank with them.”

And frank she was—Shepard’s story was as spicy and intriguing as a romance paperback; something none of the students seemed to be anticipating. That jolt—the disagreement between what they were seeing and what they were hearing—was especially helpful in pulling the students’ impression of the aged away from the expected.

Overall, this initiative is an extremely positive step toward bridging the gap between older adults and quality health care. Bringing in a new generation of doctors who don’t pre-diagnose their patients based solely on their birthday’s means more listening, more understanding, and better treatment.

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