Exceptional Alzheimer's care is often a blend of bonding with the person who needs care and educating the caregiver about how best to help the person with the disease.

To this end, a visionary initiative called The Buddy Program, which pairs medical students with Alzheimer's patients, was developed by the Northwestern University Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago. The students and their "buddies" go on outings and participate in various activities during the academic year. Each doctor-patient duo also attends monthly group meetings and educational seminars about Alzheimer's care.

The Buddy Program builds on a fundamental truth about relationships and human connection, and has since been replicated in Massachusetts, Missouri and New Hampshire.

According to Beth Kallmyer, MSW, Alzheimer's Association Vice President of Constituent Services, "The Buddy Program helps reduce the stigma associated with Alzheimer's disease, which exists even with medical professionals. It is very valuable for introducing medical students, in advance, to the various kinds of people they may one day be treating, and to new ideas for how to relate to people coping with the changes brought on by aging and dementia. The Buddy Program has the potential to greatly increase a medical student's knowledge and understanding of Alzheimer's and dementia, far beyond what they can learn in a typical class."

Knowing the person you care for

A caregiver for someone with Alzheimer's or another form of dementia often needs to join that person in his or her cognitive world.

In order to do this successfully, it helps to have a solid relationship built on trust. Knowledge of the person's likes and dislikes, his or her work history, marriage status, children and life in general can be helpful. It is trust, however, that is essential, and a trusting connection is something that a physician may find hard to establish in a few office visits. That kind of relationship depends on the heart as much as the brain and often comes in a relationship that is formed over time.

While The Buddy Program can't replicate long-term friendships or a family member's love, it can provide an opportunity for first-year medical students to have an ongoing, personal relationship with someone who has the disease.

The Buddy Program personalizes Alzheimer's for medical students. We can hope that it may help them remember, as busy doctors of the future, that a unique human being is behind every "case" that is diagnosed and treated.

The Buddy Program partners participate together in learning programs built around mutually satisfying activities, just as any friends would do. They plan together for a year of regular meetings that should help cement the bond between them, in the end training future doctors in a manner that has rarely been seen in traditional medical education. The key to this program, in my estimation, is that it's a mutually beneficial program. The medical student is not there to tell the person with Alzheimer's disease how he or she should live. The medical student is there to learn and to be a partner and friend.

According to the national Alzheimer's Association, these programs are improving medical students' knowledge and familiarity with Alzheimer's disease while also heightening sensitivity and empathy toward people with the disease.

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The Alzheimer's Association describes the goals of the program as:

  • Educating medical students about Alzheimer's disease by increasing their knowledge base, heightening their awareness of skills and strengths that remain in persons with Alzheimer's and familiarizing them with care/support issues and effective communication skills.
  • Introducing students to research and practice opportunities in fields related to aging and dementia.
  • Providing persons living with dementia an opportunity to serve as a mentor to a future doctor.

Darby Morhardt, MSW, LCSW, research associate professor in cognitive neurology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine said, "We want to expand future physicians' knowledge of, interest in and attitudes toward Alzheimer's and dementia in order to increase the number of physicians capable of caring effectively and compassionately for patients with these diseases and their families."

Morhardt added, "Many students remark on the comfort and enjoyment they experience with their mentor and, for some, an increased comfort over the course of the year."

In an interview with the Alzheimer's Association, Morhardt shared the feelings of one student. "I feel like my interactions with (my mentor) are becoming more fluid as I begin to ask fewer complex questions and incorporate his viewpoint into my own speech," the student wrote. "I also feel more comfortable ‘jumping in' when (my mentor) struggles for too long with a word or sentence without threatening his independence. I understand so much more about (my mentor's) experience than I could even imagine before we met."

Who better to teach others about what people with Alzheimer's need most than those who have the disease?

To me, the Buddy Program is an ingenious way to bring together the joint wisdom of those who have the disease and those who treat it, making significant progress toward a better future for all who must cope with dementia.