by William Faust
Getting older & better
leads interdisciplinary approach to aging
By Fariss Samarrai
Mark Williams has always felt elderly people are no different
from anybody else. In rural North Carolina, where he grew up,
older people were a normal part of the community.
so in medical school. Something was not right, Williams
said. Major scientific advances were elegant and held great
promise to relieve suffering, but the application of this knowledge
to elderly people was often ineffective. I felt there could be
more compassion and humanity at bedside for older people.
set out to change things. In the early 1980s, he received a fellowship
at the University of Rochester in geriatric medicine, a new
medical specialty at the time. Before that, physicians just
assumed that they could take care of elderly people in the same
way as younger adults, Williams said.
now holds the Ward K. Ensminger Chair in geriatric medicine at
U.Va., and he is forming an interdisciplinary Institute on Aging,
which he will direct. The institute will promote health and independence
for older people through collaborations between researchers, scholars
and health care professionals in Medicine, Nursing, Law, Engineering,
Arts & Sciences, Business, Education and government.
will be a research entity, translating research to community outreach,
Williams said. We want to make Charlottesville and Central
Virginia the best place to age in America.
area is ideal as a center for the study of aging because of a
large retirement community and a strong research and health care
infrastructure, Williams said.
He has found more than 100 willing colleagues in disciplines across
Grounds who work on issues and care related to aging. The institute
will bring them together for innovative collaboration and to seek
came to U.Va. three years ago from the University of North Carolina
School of Medicine, where he advocated an interdisciplinary approach
to geriatric research and developed methods for testing the task-performing
skills of older patients. His goal here, as director of geriatric
services and chief of general medicine and geriatrics, is to make
U.Va. one of the leading institutions for geriatric research,
health care and services.
Theres a great spirit of cooperation at this university,
Theres good reason to cooperate. America is graying,
with the massive Baby Boom generation moving toward and into later
middle age. About 5,000 people turn 65 each day in America, and
their need for health care and services will increase with each
passing year. And a girl born today has a life expectancy of 80
years. A century ago a baby girl was expected to live about 50
The aging of America may be the most significant societal
transformation of the 21st century.
Williams said it is time to put away the stereotypes about aging
that people become senile, sickly, detached. In fact, elderly
people are healthier, more active and living more engaged lives
than at any other point in history, he said. Only about 5 percent
of people older than 65 live in nursing homes.
Our bodies change as we age, but its not a downhill
slide, Williams said. Because of better health care
and lifestyle improvements, people often live fruitful, happy
lives, well into old age.
After more than two decades of working with older patients, Williams
has become philosophical about aging more so, he admits,
as he ages.
Aging is an unfolding process; its not linear,
he said. Its like watching a rose open; there are
different facets and qualities to maturity. Time confers on people
an element of perception and wisdom. We become more, not less.