COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - New medical students at the University of Missouri quickly learn the nuances of anatomical science, disease treatment and other basic requirements for aspiring doctors.
But a majority of the nearly 100 first-year students in the Class of 2016 will find some of their most valuable lessons outside the classroom, paired with senior mentors who will give an up-close look into the realities of growing old - and also shatter some well-worn stereotypes.
Now in its 12th year, the Heyssel Senior Teacher Educator Partnership is strictly voluntary for new students at the University of Missouri School of Medicine. Sixty percent of the incoming class has signed up for the program, and the participation rate has nearly doubled since the program began in 2001.
"It's a way to help medical students get to know seniors as human beings," said Dr. Steve Zweig, chairman of the school's department of family and community medicine. "Learning from the people you will be caring for is a very powerful lesson, and one we need to be reminded of."
The program's growth mirrors advances in gerontology and geriatric medicine, Zweig said. It's a far cry from his own experiences as a MU medical student nearly four decades ago, treating "desperately ill and delirious" older patients at the Veterans Administration hospital.
University of South Carolina medical school researchers studied the Missouri program and nine similar efforts in 2009 and confirmed many of the anecdotal observations already made by Zweig and his colleagues - namely, that the human touch goes a long way toward supplementing classroom and lab lessons. The participating universities included Arizona, Duke, Nebraska, Ohio State and the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Eldin Duderija, a second-year MU medical student, said he remains close to the retired couple he was paired with last year. The 23-year-old Bosnia native, who moved to St. Louis as a child, said his mentors are "essentially like the grandparents I never had in Columbia."
"It gives you another element to medicine," he said. "It's not always about the science."
For seniors, the STEP program provides a connection to a younger generation while also offering valuable lectures on topics such as exercise, death and dying and senior sexuality, said Marty Hausman, a retired nurse.
"You feel really good about the future," she said.
The newest crop of first-year students and senior mentors met last week at a Columbia hotel for a kickoff dinner. Despite a 50-year age difference, Jackie Herzberg, a new student from Villisca, Iowa, quickly bonded with mentor Nancy Fritsch over a shared love of running. By the end of dinner, they had planned a joint jog on a local trail.
"It's going to be so mutually beneficial," said Herzberg, a University of Iowa graduate. "Having the support of someone knowing so much more about how to navigate the world around them is so important."
Fritsch, a retired teacher now in her seventh year with the program, remains connected to each of her previous student matches.
"It's like having seven grandchildren," she said. "I warn them: This is for life."
Senior Teacher Educator Partnership at http://medicine.missouri.edu/aging/step.html