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 Gertrude Martin and Sina Akhavan "Reader's Theater" collaborators Gertrude Martin and Sina Akhavan. (Cathy Cockrell/UC Berkeley NewsCenter photo)

Where future doctors learn the rudiments of aging from elders

video audio slideshow Video: On age and aging — collaborating across generations

| 12 January 2009

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold;…

— Sonnet 73, William Shakespeare

While steeping themselves in details of human anatomy and the signs and symptoms of a thousand and one diseases, medical students rarely have the luxury to contemplate their own attitudes toward sickness or what great writers have had to say about aging and mortality.

A course on aging at UC Berkeley breaks with the paradigm, bringing future doctors into direct dialogue with elders in the community. In "Reader's Theater in a Medical Context: On Aging and Old Age," young people headed for careers in medicine "get to consider amongst themselves what it might be like to grow old — and then to test those considerations with old people," says clinical professor Guy Micco, who launched the offering in 2005.

  Clinical professor Guy Micco
Clinical professor Guy Micco
(Cathy Cockrell/UC Berkeley NewsCenter photo)

In his classroom, medical students enrolled in the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program and UC Berkeley premed students will discuss, for example, the normal aging process and ethical concerns in geriatric care. To deepen the conversation, the students also unearth poetry and prose on the themes of age and aging. Then, guided by a drama coach Linda Spector, they collaborate with elders to rehearse selected pieces on these themes for public performance — without the encumbrance of props, costumes, memorization, or staging.

This "reader's theater" technique, borrowed from the dramatic arts, is by all reports a fun break from the lockstep of medical education — while helping students to "get at hidden attitudes about what it is to age and be old," notes Micco. The more that students headed for careers in healthcare come to understand about "the ideas, prejudices, anxieties, and fears they and others have about aging and death," says Micco, "the better they will be as practitioners."

"As a college student, I often get wrapped up" in school work, Berkeley senior Sunny Lai said during a recent post-performance discussion with a campus audience. "It's nice to put things into perspective and realize how short and how long life is." Lai said she had learned, in the class, about "the institutional side" of the nursing-home system, as well as "what it is like to age" directly from elders..

"Reader's Theater in a Medical Context" is part of the geriatric curriculum of the UC Berkeley–UCSF Joint Medical Program (JMP), a small joint master's-MD degree program offering UC medical students opportunities to explore perspectives from the humanities and social sciences.

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