An Aging Athenian

Georgia needs more doctors who specialize in caring for older people.

Last year there were more than one million Georgians over 65, but only 124 certified geriatricians to care for them, according to a 2012 report by the American Geriatrics Society. That leaves the state short by 318 doctors trained to care for older people.

“I’ll be 65 this coming June, and so will so many others, you know,” said J.R. Green, a van driver for the Athens Community Council on Aging. “The baby boom, it’s right around the corner. It’s already started.”

On January 1st, 2011, the first of the Baby Boomers turned 65.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the number of Americans over 65 will more than double, passing 88 million by 2050.

Put another way, this means that one in every five Americans will be over 65.

That said, most Americans give little thought to aging.

“You know, it’s one of those things people don’t think about, you know, you’re young forever,” said Green. “People don’t think about working with the elderly, and people don’t even think about getting old. It just sneaks up on you one day and wow, there it is.”

Geriatricians are physicians who have completed residencies in Internal Medicine or Family Medicine, with additional fellowship training in medical, social and psychological issues that concern older adults.

“Geriatrics is definitely not what you would call one of the sexy specialties,” said geriatrician Don Scott. Scott practiced and taught on the south side of Chicago before joining the faculty of the GHSU-UGA Medical Partnership in 2011, where he now teaches hands-on doctoring skills.

Some students don’t know much about geriatrics.

“We graze geriatrics in school,” said Ashley Austin, a third-year medical student at UGA “We did one or two lectures, maybe, and a physical exam. People would have to go out of their way to pick in elective rotation in that and there are just so many other fields out there.”

Despite a curriculum that doesn’t emphasize geriatrics during the first two years, some at the new Health Sciences Campus hope to raise the specialty’s profile.

Scott is one of them. Others include faculty at the Institute of Gerontology, part of the UGA College of Public Health. They deal with education, research and outreach services related to aging and older adults.

“Many medical schools will have electives in geriatrics, but very few have any required geriatrics rotations in the third and the fourth year,” said Scott. “So, I’m in the process of getting a geriatrics interest-group started here; trying to promote the geriatric perspective a little bit.”

The Veterans Administration is one federal agency that provides geriatric care to those eligible for its services, including people who served in the military and sometimes their dependents. Like many Athens-area veterans, Green gets some of his care at the VA satellite clinic on highway 29 and the rest at the VA Medical Center in Augusta – 100 miles away. Here, the aging of the Boomers and their parents is hard to miss.

“Let me tell you, there’s a lot of old guys out at the VA,” Green said. “I mean there’s still some World War II guys out there getting treated at the medical center in Augusta.”

Although Green is able to obtain medical care at the VA, most of his clients and friends at the Council on Aging do not have that option – either because they aren’t eligible or they can’t travel so far and need care closer to home.

“The medical school, in the long run, will be good for the community,” said Green. “More doctors will come to the area now and stay and have to do their internship and maybe do it at one of the two hospitals here. The fact that there’ll be more doctors available in the community will be good for the city.”

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