Readers Theater: Poetry, aging and the JMP

The elderly woman grasped the Xeroxed love poem with her arthritic fingers and avowed, “It’s as if this poet knew my story.” In the boardroom at Salem Lutheran Home the other four JMP students and I sat in a mystified silence as Mrs. K shared this history. We were at Salem as part of “Readers Theater” — a unique course offered by Guy Micco in which JMP students team up with residents of Salem and read aloud aging-themed literature. On this particular Wednesday evening, after she had recited an especially poignant piece Mrs. K disclosed that her husband had advanced Alzheimer’s dementia and had forgotten that they were married. Even though he had fallen for another and had requested her engagement ring back so that he could propose to his new lover, Mrs. K never faltered, “Love is eternal and I still loved him.”

“It was the JMP that sparked in me a calling to serve older adults who I now recognize as an underserved population.”

Although she narrated her story with the composure of a wise elder whose years had taught her the resilience of love, it made me wonder — how would this fundamental change in the person you love affect your life, affect your health? The weight of this question grew with every anecdote shared during my three years in Readers Theater in the JMP. Beyond the stucco walls of our East Bay facility, I envisioned a vast aging population and could hardly fathom the multitude of challenges their health care providers must face. During my Internal Medicine residency at Yale, I have had the opportunity to manage several older patients. In approaching their complex medical problems, I often reflect on Mrs. K and the toll her husband’s illness took on her own medical issues. I have grown to enjoy treating older patients and, perhaps because of Mrs. K, I now relish the chance to sort through the complicated web of factors — from love stories to failing eyesight — that determine their health.

It was the JMP that sparked in me a calling to serve older adults who I now recognize as an underserved population. In June I will carry this flame, nurtured through practice at Yale, back to UCSF where I will participate in a geriatrics fellowship. I daydream that one day I will be able to join Guy Micco on the other side of the bay where a new set of future geriatricians might encounter another Mrs. K and discover their own calling.

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Elana Shpall graduated from UC Berkeley in 2007 with a degree in English Literature. She attended the UC Berkeley-UCSF JMP 2009–2011 and graduated from the UCSF School of Medicine in 2013. She has since been a resident in Internal Medicine at Yale and after graduating this June will return to UCSF for a fellowship in Geriatrics 2016–2017.

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