Some Lessons can only be Taught in Conversation

Make a New Old Friend Program Inspires Future Physician


Don Nightingale from The Village at University Gates was recently part of a group of residents who joined RIA researchers and elementary school students for a curiosity fair hosted by the village’s innovation team and the RIA collectively. More than anything, the day was about intergenerational connectivity, and it was a great success.

But aside from the project he helped present that day on the Schlegel Villages Wisdom of the Elder program, Don also mentioned another way he’s offering his experience to younger generations. He spoke of Emily Allison, a 25-year-old doctor in training who meets with him regularly to learn about the beauty and the challenges that accompany long life.

“I’m the old man and she’s the young girl,” Don said that day with a smile, “ and she’s looking to her future in medicine.” If he can offer her a different perspective on what it’s like to face medical challenges, as he’s done since surviving a stroke a few years ago, then maybe she’ll carry that perspective with her when she meets her future patients.

Don and Emily are part of the Make a New Old Friend program, spearheaded by Dr. Andrew Costa, the RIA’s Schlegel Research Chair in Clinical Epidemiology & Aging and a Research Director with the Waterloo Campus of the McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Medicine. The pilot program, which began this spring, pairs first year medical students from MacMaster with older adults living in long-term care and retirement settings. The students spend time getting to know their senior partners, speaking with them and learning their history and the nature of their current lifestyle, personalizing some of the conditions they learn about in clinics and books. There are some things they discuss which, quite frankly, can’t be taught in books.

On their second meeting, for example, Don shared with Emily the recent conversations he’d had with his family about end-of-life care, or advanced care planning, something every physician is often required to discuss with those they serve. He explained how he and his wife Mary together decided on what measures should or should not be taken to save his life if his health suddenly failed, and how difficult it was to explain their decisions to his children

“You can learn about it and hear about trying to have those conversations,” Emily says, “but to hear somebody’s own experience about telling their children they don’t want to be resuscitated and how difficult that was for them to process, but that he stayed strong and believes it’s right for him,” it’s a powerful learning experience, and just one of many Don has offered in their three sessions together.

She’s learned not to make any assumptions about what somebody would want based on her own interpretation of their health, and that’s an important lesson to learn.

She’s just finishing her first year and says some of the most valuable education she’s experienced came through her time with Don. She’s grateful their sessions through the program will continue for a few more months, and then likely well beyond that after the program ends for a true friendship seems to have formed. 

“The most important part is never underestimating how much you can learn from someone else,” Emily says, “and allowing the time for that and prioritizing that. What I’ve realized in medical school is how time is so important and you always feel busy, but it’s actually really important to just be present with the person in front of you.”

It’s a lesson she knows will serve her well as she looks to a future in family medicine, and she encourages any of her fellow students and all future physicians to take advantage of the wisdom people like Don have to offer.

Click here for more on the Make a New Old Friend Program