A council of elders: creating a multi-voiced dialogue in a community of care

Soc Sci Med. 2000 Mar;50(6):851-60. doi: 10.1016/s0277-9536(99)00341-x.


In an era of 'medical care delivery systems', there is an increasing need for the patient's voice to be heard, for it to be invited, listened to, and taken seriously. This challenge is particularly evident in geriatrics education, a domain of clinical training in which educators and clinicians alike must struggle to overcome adverse attitudes towards the elderly ('ageism'). In this paper we introduce a 'Council of Elders' as an educational innovation in which we invited community elders to function as our 'Senior Faculty', to whom medical residents present their challenging and heartfelt dilemmas in caring for elder patients. In the conversations that ensue, the elders come to function not simply as teachers, but collaborators in a process in which doctors, researchers, and elders together create a community of resources, capable of identifying novel ways to overcome health-related difficulties which might not have been apparent to either group separately. Using the first meeting of the Council as an exemplar, we describe and discuss the special nature of such meetings and also the special preparations required to build a dialogic relationship between participants from very different worlds--different generations, different cultures (including the professional culture and the world of lived experience). Meetings with the council have become a required part of the primary care residency program--a very different kind of 'challenging case conference' in which moral dilemmas can be presented, discussed and reflected upon. It is not so much that elders give good advice in their responses--although they often do--as that they provide life world and value orientation as young residents gain a better sense of the elder's experience and what matters most to them. This project has been particularly worthwhile in addressing the problem of ageism--a way to render visible stereotypes and adverse physician values, with implications for decision-making with the patient, not for the patient.

MeSH terms

  • Aged*
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Female
  • Geriatrics / education*
  • Geriatrics / methods
  • Geriatrics / organization & administration
  • Humans
  • Internship and Residency
  • Male
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Primary Health Care
  • Stereotyping