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William J. Hall, 80

Geriatrician reflects on his career, discusses myths of getting older and why Medicare should cover tango lessons

By Lynette M. Loomis

Q. What drew you to the field of geriatrics?

A. “Midway through my career as a doctor of internal medicine, I discovered that my patients were aging and that I was not well prepared to take care of them. I was fortunate enough to be on the faculty at the University of Rochester, which already had experts on aging. I engaged them and decided, after learning more about medical care for older adults, to switch my specialty to geriatrics. At that time, there were no specialty training programs. As I got more versed in my new pursuit, I helped develop geriatric programs at the medical center, and established training programs for medical students, residents, and post-graduate scholars. Our academic and clinical programs have grown, and the U of R is now nationally ranked among the best programs in the country.”

Q. What have you learned from your patients?

A. “Just about everything I know. Every day when I see patients, all of whom are in their 70s, 80s and beyond, I find fountains of wisdom and smarts that are humbling to me. I have learned what a privilege it is to care for them and to hear of their lives and accomplishments. Older people want to tell their stories and, often because of social isolation, are unable to do so. The degree of gratitude I reap from my contact with older adults provides me with a level of satisfaction few physicians experience.”

Q. How can older adults be more active in their medical care?

A. “First and foremost, I tell my patients that, while they have the respect for me and most medical personnel, the reality is that we work for them. They are in charge. I encourage them to bring in a list of concerns they have, number them and make sure that they get answers. I have learned is that it is best to have them start with the last thing on their list. That’s usually the one they have the most concern over. I also want them to bring all their medicines in a bag. It is rare that I do not find some meds that are useless or even dangerous. We agree to get rid of those. I worry about social isolation of my patients. As they say, aging is not for sissies. Rochester is an age-friendly community with resources such as Lifespan, fitness centers and library programs.”

Q. What are some of the myths about getting older that you try to dispel?

A. “Perhaps the most pervasive is that everybody gets Alzheimer’s disease. To be sure, memory problems are common as we age, but there is a big difference between occasionally misplacing your car keys and putting those keys in the microwave and turning it on. Older adults are faced with too many “can’t” dictums. You can’t be active, you can’t develop relationships, etc. Take advantage of all the resources Rochester has to offer.”

Q. How has being a geriatrician impacted how you handle your own aging?

A. “I turned 80 a few months ago. We have an old saying in medicine: “Do as I say, not as I do.” I must remind myself that key aspects of healthy aging require a concerted effort. So, I exercise daily, I watch my weight, I read and I socialize. Sometimes I do nothing and then my monkey brain reminds me that I better stick to it. I try to find meaningful activities and, when I do stop seeing patients, I will fill the void with volunteering.”

Q. What are some of your hobbies and interests?

A. “I have grandchildren in town to visit. I like to fish and Rochester has many venues year round for that. You find many older adults enjoy fishing and talking about it and making up preposterous claims of prowess. I’m one of those. I’m working on a novel which keeps me mentally alert. I am active in Writers and Books, an extraordinary resource. My wife and I recently took tango lessons. My theory is that if I were czar of the universe, I would make sure that Medicare paid for tango lessons. It may be the best all-round age-friendly activity there is. It combines balance exercise, awareness of musical beat, memory, close tactile opportunities, and romance!”

Photo: Geriatrician William Hall is a professor of medicine at University of Rochester Medical Center, Center for Healthy Aging.