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What can doctors learn from their oldest patients?

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Placing headphones
Brooke Smith, recreation therapy manager at Hillview Health Care Center, places headphones on Edna Zeuner so she can listen to music Monday, April 7, 2014.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News 2014

More medical schools in the U.S. are offering programs for young doctors to listen to elderly patients, according to a recent New York Times story. So what can doctors learn from their oldest patients?

The answer is a lot, says Dr. Jon Hallberg of the University of Minnesota.

Medical students often have pre-conceived perceptions about the limitations and possibilities of aging, Hallberg says. However, older patients have a wealth of knowledge, as well as stories.

"[They] have life experience. They have traveled. They have been places. They have done things," Hallberg said. "I had one patient who was in France after D-Day."

Simply listening can go a long way, he said.

And with a shortage of geriatric specialist in the United States, it's an increasingly important skill. "We have no choice but to incorporate geriatric practice into our clinic settings," Hallberg said.

And connecting with seniors is a valuable skill for young doctors to learn, for reasons beyond medicine.

"In primary care, we are relationship-based," Hallberg said. "The joy of seeing people get older — to know them over decades — is this amazing privilege."