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Healing the generation gap

UC Irvine medical student Beverly Cho plans to specialize in caring for older adults
UC Irvine medical student Beverly Cho
UC Irvine medical student Beverly Cho plans to make caring for older adults her life's work.

Medical student spearheads programs to encourage classmates to spend time with seniors

Growing up as an only child, Beverly Cho spent a lot of time hanging out with older adults.

"I feel I relate to them very well," she says. "I enjoy listening to their stories."

Cho, a second-year student at UC Irvine's School of Medicine, says helping seniors is "where my heart is."  Yet her interest in older adults goes beyond her studies.

In summer 2007, she started the Buddy Program through the Geriatrics Interest Group to get UCI students to simply spend time with seniors, much as she did as a child. The program pairs medical students, nursing students and interested undergraduates with residents of the Regents Point retirement community in Irvine.

"The goal is to interact with seniors on a social level," Cho says. "We already get clinical and academic perspectives in class. This program aims to bring us back to the community, and remind us about the people we will be serving."

Cho regularly visits a couple in their 70s; the wife has Parkinson's disease and macular degeneration and needed companionship.

"She has a lot of stories and health issues she wants to talk about," Cho says.

Another student writes poetry, which his older adult couple reads aloud. Students visit their partners about once a month.

"How we spend the time together is very individual," Cho says. "It could be a phone call or a meal. One student took his partner to a doctor's appointment. I've gone to Lee's Sandwiches with mine. It's nice to get the seniors out."

The program helps students better understand their future patients. In fact, some of their partners are retired doctors and faculty members "who have a lot of knowledge to share with us," Cho says.

Medical students who belong to the Geriatrics Interest Group, which Cho facilitates, also take field trips to places like the Braille Institute in Anaheim and the Silverado Senior Living care home for Alzheimer's patients in Costa Mesa to see how seniors live with difficult, even devastating conditions.

Cho also recently joined UCI's new Readers Theater, led by Dr. Johanna Shapiro, professor of family medicine, in which students and seniors perform a short script - with "no rehearsals, no costumes."

"We just had our first performance, in which a student played an ailing senior, and the senior played the role of a non-understanding physician," Cho says. "It opened the dialogue between the seniors and us. The play can be about any topic - it's making that connection that counts."

Cho has helped out in the community since high school, when she volunteered as a candy striper at a local Kaiser hospital in Hayward. She graduated with a bachelor's in chemistry from UC Berkeley in 2003 and worked in a community clinic for low-income seniors for several years before enrolling at UCI—inspired by Dr. Laura Mosqueda, the Ronald W. Reagan Endowed Chair in Geriatrics and director of the geriatrics program.

"Beverly is just the type of person that we want to be a doctor," Mosqueda says. "She has a wonderful combination of intelligence, sensitivity and humor that make her a special person. We're proud to have her here as a student leader."

Eventually, Cho hopes to practice geriatric medicine in California.

"I really see myself as a good patient advocate," she says.

— Kathryn Bold, University Communications