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The Geriatrician Syndrome

I recently attended the AGS Meeting in Orlando as a rising 3rd year medical student. I was there to present my work on family caregivers, which was well received and even garnered some international attention. Not only did my research resonate with clinicians and researchers on a professional level, but they were also personally touched by the unique and heartbreaking stories of these unpaid caregivers. These were individuals who tirelessly gave their time and energy to tend the health care needs of a loved one without accepting pay or gratitude, even at the expense of their own physical and mental wellbeing. I was enthused by the opportunity to share my findings, but when people came up to me to extend their congratulation's for receiving the AGS Clinical Student Research Award, I was not as excited to talk about that. Instead of saying, “Thank you, I am delighted and honored,” I wrote off such worthy recognition by responding, “They probably didn’t have anyone else to give it to!” It was then that Dr. Mike Harper explained, “You have the geriatrician syndrome.”
ger·i·a·tri·cian syn·drome
\ˌjer-ē-ə-ˈtri-shən \ˈsin-ˌdrōm

A pathologically modest view of self in the context of one’s role as a physician caring for older adults; cardinal features include: inability to accept praise and downplaying the significance of one’s role in medicine.

How could this be when I’m not even a geriatrician yet? I haven’t worked as hard as the rest of these immensely accomplished meeting attendees. I still have to take Step 1 in June for crying out loud! Who was I to tell any of these people anything about my research on family caregivers and to receive an award for it?


I guess I do have that syndrome.

I cannot definitively explain how I came to acquire this syndrome. I know that in the time I have spent working with geriatricians prior to starting medical school I have learned that this is a very humble bunch.  Geriatricians constantly feel as though their work and desire to positively impact the lives of elders is endless, but they unremittingly forge on with much purpose and conviction. They may not be the highest paid nor could they boast to be the most competitive of medical specialties, but they sure are the happiest. They are truly the unsung heroes of medicine; but even when they are lauded, they shy away from it. In a way, they are very much like the family caregivers in my study; that is, they take very little credit – if any – for the large and positive impact they have on the lives they touch.

To be honored among those whose careers span more than half of my entire lifetime was beyond humbling (I’m 31 for what it’s worth). My fellow awardees gave poignant speeches about their commendable life’s work in geriatrics, whereas I was so nervous about not falling on stage that I forgot to shake Dr. Wayne McCormick’s hand upon receipt of my framed certificate.

Reflecting on this experience, I realized that we – as current and future geriatricians – are drawn to this field because it is totally unpretentious and rewarding on countless levels. There’s no hiding the fact that people grow old and succumb to many great illnesses as they age. Those elderly patients who are fragile in body but resolute in spirit teach us many things about living that we could only hope to experience in our own lifetimes. We are so greatly humbled because the field boasts of many outstanding clinicians and researchers who have made quiet yet monumental waves in medicine that continue to carry their significance forward to future generations of doctors, such as myself. As with the family caregivers who shared their stories with me, geriatricians feel that even when we give it our all, we never think it is enough because we have so much more we want to give to these elders.

I reckon the only way to treat the geriatrician syndrome is to continue doing good work in this field so that years from now, I can confidently walk up that stage again and say with conviction and poise, “Thank you. I am delighted and honored.”

[Picture courtesy of Lisa Hinds]

by: Julie Thai [Class of 2016, College of Human Medicine, Michigan State University]


jayasankar said…
Julie, you have amazed me with your sincere words.
being engaged in palliative and geriatric care for more than a decade, I too shaRE your feelings.
I am concerned much about the problems of the family care givers and its a component of my research actually. we are conducting awareness classes, screening camps , counselling, arranging interactive programs exclusively for caregivers,helping them for self employment,arranging financial help to student children etc.

I am most interested to know about your paper presented in the AGS meeting

Julie Thai said…
Dr. Jayasankar,

Thank you for your encouraging comment. Our caregiver study used semi-structured interviewing methodology to look at quality of life assessments for family caregivers of frail older adults 65+, among other things. The caregivers we spoke with shared stories of their experiences, both good and bad, and gave us great insight into the meaning of becoming a loved one's caregiver and not receiving pay for doing so. We are working on composing the manuscript and would be happy to share the complete findings with you and others here on Please continue to visit our blog for updates. Also, I would be very interested to learn more about your work with family caregivers. Could you provide a link to where I could access this information?

Much thanks, Julie
wassdoc said…
Julie, you represent the future of geriatric medicine. This was an incredibly insightful article. The political challenge that we face as geriatricians is that policy makers are inundated with specialists who pound their fists on the table and tell them that they save lives with expensive and unproven treatment modalities. In our system of government, being quiet and passive does not do much to advance our cause. We don't have to pound our fists (and most of us could never do that), but we do have to speak out for the value that we bring to the care of older adults. Let us hope that your voice can be inspirational to geriatricians both young and old! Thank you!
Mary-Ann Barton said…
Julie, as a nurse's aide and elder companion, I see first-hand the quiet heroism of family caregivers. The support that these caregivers receive from geriatricians is so important. Just to be present, in a kindly way, with both the patient and their daughter or spouse or grandchild, just to listen, to meet their gaze, to ask clarifying questions, to share suggestions from one's experience with other patients and families, this is truly a gift of healing.