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He’s not a patient, but plays one for class

Students studying geriatrics in Maine live for weeks in N.E. nursing homes

Boston.com
07/21/2010

Matthew Sharbaugh checked himself into a nursing home recently, complaining of chronic pulmonary obstructive disease, congestive heart failure, and right-side weakness from a recent stroke. He is 24.

Sharbaugh had signed away his youth for the next 12 days to play the part of an 85-year-old man in ailing health at the Old Soldiers' Home in Chelsea.

A second-year student at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine in Biddeford, Maine, Sharbaugh is one of six students living in a New England nursing home this summer as part of the school's Learning by Living experiment, founded in 2005 to provide students interested in geriatrics with firsthand experience of the care of the elderly. This year is the first the program has expanded to include a facility in the Boston area.

Sharbaugh, who keeps a daily journal chronicling his observations, said last week: "I never really noticed how hard it is to live like this. I just always thought of old people as grumpy people who are easily upset.''

By his fourth day, Sharbaugh, of Simsbury, Conn., came to appreciate the patience needed to cope with the daily frustrations facing wheelchair users: a misplaced TV remote, a notice posted too high.

Adjusting to his new life took time. His wheelchair beeped alarmingly every time he tried getting up or shifting his weight. His diet of pureed foods did little to satisfy his appetite. The first time he showered, he was unable to turn his wheelchair and ended up washing just the left side of his body.

Going to the bathroom became an art. With a twinge of shame, Sharbaugh learned to coordinate his bathroom trips with nurse shifts to avoid asking the same care provider for help more than once.

From his wheelchair, Sharbaugh also picks up on details that can enhance or detract from the quality of care for elderly patients.

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