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The changing face of geriatric medicine

Doctors’ understanding of aging—the mechanisms underlying its physical and psychological manifestations—has transformed how they approach treatment for the elderly.

Adrian Bonenberger
Photo by Anthony DeCarlo
Adrian Bonenberger

In compiling this issue—talking through different story ideas, discussing the theme, and reading through the submissions—I was struck both by how far care for the elderly has come in my lifetime, and how far there is to go.

Growing up in Branford’s Short Beach community in the 1980s, I’d often ride my bike through Turtle Bay and past Connecticut Hospice. The first hospice in the United States, founded in 1974 by Florence Wald, the former dean of the Yale School of Nursing, Connecticut Hospice entered my life a scant 12 years before my parents gave me bike privileges. An essential component of end-of-life care that we now take for granted today, hospice was still a novelty when I was a child. None of my great-grandparents took advantage of the service, though my last living great-grandfather passed away in 1991 at the age of 94—well after hospice care was an established component of end-of-life care.

People of my great-grandfather’s generation lived long enough to see horse carriages replaced by cars, to watch people take to the skies and land on the moon, but another revolution is taking place in medicine today, in a culture that benefits from medical advances. That revolution depends on understanding how diseases and conditions affect people as they age, and how they interact with the body’s systems over time. This revolution is partly the result of more people living longer, and partly the outcome of doctors and researchers focusing on the specific health challenges encountered by older people.

It has been inspiring and illuminating to learn about what faculty members of the Yale School of Medicine are doing in this field. The process of aging, of changing the way one interacts with the surrounding world, is no longer the terrifying, unsettling, and isolating experience it once was. Increasingly, science is delivering on a long-held promise to help older people navigate their lives in good health and with dignity.