In a society that worships youth, a physician who treasures older adults stands apart.
Joan and Stanford Alexander needed a primary care doctor to manage their health as they advanced in years, and what—or rather who— they found led to a transformative decision.
Holly Holmes, MD, directs the Division of Geriatric and Palliative Medicine at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth and provides care through UT Physicians Center for Healthy Aging, a part of UTHealth. Her work focuses on ensuring older adults receive specialized care from practitioners who have both the training to meet their unique needs and a genuine heart for their well-being.
“After meeting Dr. Holmes, it became clear we had found our doctor,” says Joan. “She is not only an expert in the field of geriatrics, but one of the most compassionate and caring physicians and individuals we ever have met.”
Amid a rapidly growing population of older adults, only 2% of physicians qualify as geriatricians. This has prompted concerns that our nation’s health care system will not have the expertise to provide older adults with the care they need to enjoy full, healthy lives.
Holmes and her colleagues within the division are working to make the kind of care the Alexanders experience more widely available. This includes developing an interprofessional education program to train providers across UTHealth in the principles of geriatric medicine, creating a pipeline of practitioners who can help mitigate the shortage of geriatricians.
The division’s research complements these efforts through initiatives such as working to prevent and remedy elder abuse, reducing the prescribing of multiple drugs (which can cause harmful interactions in older adults), and discovering ways to detect and reverse frailty among older adults, especially the homebound.
“Just as medicine recognizes the unique needs of pediatric patients, we believe older adults deserve the same kind of specialized attention,” says Holmes. “We are dedicated to their lives, their futures, and the ongoing progress of geriatric medicine.”
In gratitude for the difference Holmes has made in their lives, and with a vision to extend the same care to others, the Alexanders made a significant commitment to the division. In recognition of their generosity, the division has been named the Joan and Stanford Alexander Division of Geriatric and Palliative Medicine.
Their support will impact the division in three significant ways. First, it establishes the Joan and Stanford Alexander Chair in Gerontology (held by Holmes), providing additional resources to support the professional development of faculty in the division.
Their generosity also promotes a greater understanding of the unique needs of older adults with the creation of a Gerontology Education Endowment. In addition to supporting the interprofessional education program, this endowment will help educate patients with dementia and their caregivers— an important step given the increasing toll of neurodegenerative diseases.
Finally, to promote advances in medical science that improve the lives of older adults, their commitment creates a research endowment. This fund provides seed grants for faculty to conduct pilot studies to explore topics, such as physical function in homebound elders, which will generate the data they need to attract large external grants for their research. The endowment will also provide bridge funding for faculty to maintain their work between grants.
“We see a tremendous need to ensure that people of older age are not discarded, but rather valued as Dr. Holmes values us,” Joan says. “We believe our commitment is a step in the right direction, and at the right time.”
The Alexanders have provided a powerful and timely source of much needed funds to the division as the COVID-19 pandemic strains health systems. Holmes says the funds will prove crucial to meeting the growing needs of older adults during these uncertain times while also laying a foundation for the future.
“I am profoundly grateful for what Joan and Stanford have chosen to do—not just for the division, but for older adults everywhere,” Holmes says. “We are honored to carry their names here for all time.”
“We are hopeful that our commitment will raise awareness and encourage others to help strengthen the division’s efforts,” Stanford says. “It is vital to the mission of UTHealth to train more health professionals in both the skills and mindset to serve older adults.”
“When we are with Dr. Holmes, she focuses on us completely, always respectful and actively listening,” Joan says. “She treats the whole person, which helps us fully live as our best selves in what is meant to be a wonderful time of life.”
CROWDFUNDING HELPS OLDER ADULTS STAY IN TOUCH THROUGH TECHNOLOGY
While COVID-19 has caused significant challenges for older adults, the technological changes it has spawned may offer the solution.
Social distancing guidelines combined with the greater vulnerability of older adults to COVID-19 has caused many to self-isolate. This can lead to avoiding doctor’s visits and forsaking the regular social interaction that promotes physical and emotional well-being.
“We have seen an exponential increase in feelings of loneliness and isolation among older adults, and we immediately recognized this as a problem we needed to solve,” says Carmel B. Dyer, MD.
The same video chat technology that facilitated working from home can help older adults maintain connections with friends, family, and health professionals. Because many older adults cannot afford laptops, tablets, or smartphones, Dyer launched a campaign on UTHealth’s crowdfunding platform to raise $25,000 to provide tablets to hospitalized and homebound older adults living in social isolation.
The initiative exceeded its goal, raising more than $30,000. A UTHealth nurse shared a message through the campaign page about giving one of the tablets to her patient: “It was quite an experience! [He] was very appreciative and humbled by the gift, and I know it will be very helpful to him in this difficult time and beyond!”
By providing the means to stay connected, Dyer says donors are helping older adults overcome isolation and connect with their loved ones.
“With the virus making things so hard on our older patients, it’s encouraging to see how much support this has received,” Dyer says. “They deserve the absolute best care in every way—especially in times like these.”