We rarely take time to dwell on this, but at some future point, many of us will need assistance as physical disabilities, chronic illness, frailty, or dementia take hold.

At the same time, the sad reality is that we may not have enough of a broad and well-trained healthcare workforce to take care of us. That includes everyone from direct care workers (such as home healthcare aides) to geriatricians.

By 2030, as many as 3.5 million additional healthcare professionals and direct-care workers will be needed. By 2050, the number of Americans requiring long-term care is expected to more than double – from 13 million in 2000 to 27 million.

This is largely a women’s issue, too: The U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services’ report on “A Profile of Older Americans, 2015” estimates that nearly half of women aged 75 or older live alone. Among the non-institutionalized elderly, more than twice as many women live alone as men.

Having an Impact, Locally

That’s what prompted our local community initiative, Age Friendly Teaneck, to begin grappling with the issue of how to better provide social, recreational and health supports for elders – many of whom are isolated and underserved – at the local level.

In short, was there a way that we could “be the change we want to see” when it comes to elder care?

We decided to create a four-week paid summer internship in 2018 for high school juniors and seniors to show them the varied career opportunities within the field of geriatrics as well as the satisfaction and creativity involved in working with older adults.

The program came together quickly, a testament to the dedication of a small working group in our Health and Social Engagement Task Force.

We started working on plans, curriculum, scheduling, and logistics for the program in March 2018. Shortly after that, we applied for and received a grant from a small family foundation to pay for the stipends and program expenses.

In April, we developed the application for students and publicized the program widely through local and social media. We also contacted all guidance counselors in Bergen County at all high schools where Teaneck residents were attending.

We received more than two dozen applications. In May, we reviewed them, did the difficult work of narrowing a very impressive field down to a dozen students to interview in person and selected four young women as our interns (as well as two alternates).

A Robust Curriculum, A Busy Month

Age Friendly Teaneck’s aim in creating the Career Exploration Internship was to combine a dynamic curriculum, real-world experience, and one-on-one connections with professionals in the fields of geriatric-related social work, geriatric wellness, technology, home care, recreation, food service, housing, elder law, and business management.

We also wanted to help tear down stereotypes, fears, and misconceptions about the elder population and encourage interns to recognize that health is more than a medical issue.

We wanted to help them understand and communicate with elders as people and become more compassionate about elders’ challenges.

Over the four weeks, interns divided their time by working primarily with three members of our Task Force: one owns and operates affordable independent and assisted living developments in our community; one leads a county-wide social services organization; and one runs a home healthcare agency.

The schedule included weekly informal meetings and Q&A sessions with a variety of senior care professionals, visits to independent living, assisted living and nursing home developments as well as to Holy Name Medical Center, and participating in the same video training used to educate home health aides.

Once a week, on “Media Mondays,” I watched relevant films (such as Still Alice) with the interns and led post-screening discussions.

What the Interns Learned

Throughout the program, the four young women impressed us with their seriousness, their openness to learning more about elder issues, and their desire to make a difference in the world.

In their post-internship evaluation, these were among the things they told us they had learned as the weeks progressed:

  • Personalities aren’t changed simply because people are older.
  • The value of listening to older people’s stories.
  • The importance of companionship in fostering wellness for older people.
  • The negative impact of loneliness and isolation among the elderly.
  • The enjoyment of shared activities with older people, whether it be reading or dancing.
  • Practical caregiving tips that they expect to be helpful when their parents or grandparents need it.
  • The value of learning about professions with which they had been unfamiliar as well as meeting professionals and maintaining those contacts.

The internship also helped these young women think about future career possibilities and reconfirmed the resolve of at least two of the interns to pursue health-related careers.

What We Learned

By all accounts, this program was very successful, and we plan to do it again in 2019. We already have a benefit we didn’t have in 2018: our interns are ready and willing to be our ambassadors to other groups or prospective 2019 interns.

I am sharing our story because I know this kind of program can be replicated in other communities. I want to encourage you to think about how you can spearhead one in your own community.

Even if you don’t have an ‘age friendly’ initiative as a sponsor, surely there are other social service or healthcare groups that could be your lead organization.

It doesn’t take a lot of money either. Had we not been fortunate enough to be approved for a small grant, I know we could have raised the funding privately to cover the costs of the stipends and program expenses.

You can learn more about the internship at our website, and you can contact me with any questions you might have about how you might be able to start a similar program. But I will share just a few things we learned along the way:

  • Make sure you are working with a small, dedicated group to ferry the process along and manage the internship, which is labor-intensive for the sponsors. Get buy-in from professionals and/or local assisted living and healthcare facilities who can host intern visits.
  • As mature as these young people are, they still need a fair amount of guidance. Be specific in your instructions and your expectations.
  • To the extent possible, arrange for specific assignments and responsibilities, such as specific times for interns to help elders with technology (phones, tablets, computers).
  • The best times: when interns had opportunities to interact directly with elders in various settings. This can be a challenge, considering HIPAA privacy rules.

I’d also encourage you to sponsor a geriatric career exploration internship because there is such great value and enormous pleasure in working with young people. Our interns – wonderful, engaged, empathetic and open-minded – have given us the needed, unexpected bonus of a ray of hope for the future.

What do you think about starting such a program in your community? Do you think it would be useful for many? What other ways can you think of to help educate younger people about the role they can play in society as the generation of their grandparents and parents gets older? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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