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SLU’s $2.5 million federal grant addresses issues of Missouri's quickly-growing elderly population

Dr. John Morley is a SLUCare geriatrician and director of geriatrics at the SLU School of Medicine
Aine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio

  On Tuesday, Dr. John Morley, SLUCare physician and director of geriatrics at Saint Louis University’s School of Medicine, joined “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh to discuss remaining vital and vibrant through the years as well as a recent $2.5 million federal grant to the university to teach primary care doctors to care for older adults.

“We’ve got a reasonable amount of money to try and do the impossible, which is to try and improve the geriatric care by primary care physicians and health care professionals over the whole state,” Morley said. “We’re trying to get 90 percent of people over the age of 65 appropriately screened for health issues that occur when they get older. I’m assuming this will take 8-10 years, not the three years.”

Morley said that physicians, on the whole are not well-trained in geriatrics.

“We’re getting old, there’s a lot of boomers, around and now we understand that people have other issues aside from classical medical issues that are much more predictive of how badly they’re going to do and if we don’t intervene early, they’ll go downhill much faster.”

Much of the money from the grant will actually go toward incentivising health professionals from Kirksville, to Perry County, to North St. Louis and at Saint Louis University to get the training. This includes trying to change the annual Medicare wellness example to include with specific geriatric questions on the exam, an algorithm that leads primary care physicians from symptom to solutions.

How will the grant improve geriatric care for the elderly?

The whole secret of good geriatric care is early prevention.

  Screenings in the community are part of the grant as well, said Morley, who last week completed one in Ferguson. At those events, patients are given a cheat-sheet to take to their primary care doctor about issues they’re encountering and what solutions are out there for their patients. Morley is part of a group of physicians that advocate for yearly cognitive screenings for every person over the age of 70.

“The whole secret of good geriatric care is early prevention,” Morley said. “We want to stop disability in its tracks before it gets there.”

Dearth of geriatricians, increasingly aging population

Part of the impetus for primary care doctor training is that there just aren’t enough geriatricians for primary care physicians to refer their patients to.

“St. Louis on the Air” caller Elaine lamented how hard it is to find a geriatrician. She said she’d asked her primary care doctors to refer her to one and they said “’Oh, we’re all trained to take care of senior citizens.’” She didn’t agree with that and wanted more specialized help.

With a population of 70 million-plus baby boomers aging into the need for geriatric care, why aren’t more doctors specializing in this role?

“Geriatricians take a long time to see people, because it takes a long time and therefore they need to be paid more,” said Morley. “Geriatricians are amongst the poorest paid physicians and this is a capitalist society.”

Geriatricians are amongst the poorest paid physicians and this is a capitalist society.

Work in training like this is especially important as the population of elderly increase in Missouri. The percentage of the aging population in Missouri is significantly higher than the percentage in the rest of the country.

Solutions at home

In addition to addressing aging worries early, Morley recommends a combination of Mediterranean diet, slight increase in exercise, socialization and computer games to help improve the process of aging.

“I think we all have to think young, we have to be realistic about thinking young,” Morley said. “We shouldn’t all be thinking we’re going to climb Everest at 85, but looking and keeping aware of what’s going on around us and trying to do what we can and interact with as many people at different ages as we can, that’s the mindset that’s important. We have to recognize sometimes as we get older, we need help. We have to be prepared to take that help, we’ve got to get screened, I just want to keep reminding you.”

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.