A group of UBC medical students is bringing companionship to older residents in isolated communities proving that relationship-based care allows you to make a positive difference from the earliest stages of a family medicine career.

The Medical Students Supporting Older Adults (MSSOA) program, led by Dr. Martha Spencer, matches UBC medical student volunteers with older adults living around the province. Students hold regular phone calls with their matches to lend a friendly ear in what has been an especially difficult time for this priority population.

Students Salina Kung, co-founder of MSSOA, and Leilynaz Malekafzali, co-lead of MSSOA, tell us more about the program and their hopes for a future in family medicine.

“I started this initiative with Dr. Martha Spencer and fourth-year medical student, Vivienne Beard,” said Salina. “At first, we were just a few students calling a few older adults. We received some amazing feedback from our program in Vancouver – the older adults really enjoyed having someone check in with them every so often. We’ve now expanded to around 50 student volunteers and 60 older adults, who were referred to the program through their physicians. We also partnered with Rai Reed, Elderly Services Nurse Consultant with Northern Health, who is recruiting older adults living independently or in assisted living. The calls are very flexible and it’s been really nice to make connections. As a medical student, it’s so special because these are opportunities to speak with older adults in the community in this kind of setting.”

Leilynaz agreed, “It’s been wonderful to be able to contribute to the mental health of older adults. COVID-19 has caused a lot of anxiety and depression among older populations. The program has been a great opportunity for them to make connections and talk about their daily lives, while medical students get to hear their wisdom and experience. We’ve been able to develop an understanding of the social determinants of health and gain skills in communicating with seniors, who may have sensory or cognitive issues and complex medical needs, as well as language differences.”

“Northern communities can be isolated and there may not be enough resources or people to support older adults,” Leilynaz continued. “It can also be difficult for people to get outside during the winter in these areas, which is another barrier limiting social interactions. Programs like this can be valuable even beyond the pandemic.” MSSOA is now also partnering with the Seniors Health and Wellness Centre in Kelowna to reach older adults living in the Interior Health Authority region.

Salina and Leilynaz are looking forward to the next stages of their careers and are especially excited to learn more about family medicine.

“I work as a lifeguard and I’ve served as a St. John Ambulance volunteer in the past,” said Salina. “I often worked with the same families over time, which was special. I really like that continuity and that’s why I’ve fallen in love with family medicine. It’s based on preventative health and seeing patients and their families throughout their lives. In essence, you’re caring for the entire community.”

Leilynaz said, “Family medicine offers the opportunity to connect with and care for diverse groups of patients. I am looking forward to learn more about rural family medicine in my upcoming clerkship rotation.”

The BCCFP wishes continued success to the students involved in the MSSOA program. We hope to welcome them to family medicine soon.