Nov. 22-Dec. 5, 2002
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Dr. Mark Williams
Photo by William Faust

Getting older & better

Williams leads interdisciplinary approach to aging

By Fariss Samarrai

Dr. 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.

Not 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.”

Williams 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.

Williams 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.

“It 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.”

The 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 funding opportunities.

Williams 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.
“There’s a great spirit of cooperation at this university,” Williams said.
There’s 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 years.
“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 it’s 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; it’s not linear,” he said. “It’s 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.”


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