DMS Students Learn TALES from Life

Innovative program brings students out of the classroom and into the lives of people with Alzheimer’s

By Mary Hawkins

DMS student Jill Kaspar ’13 knew she would be involved in TALES—The Alzheimer’s Learning Experience for Students—from the moment she first heard about it. Developed by Robert Santulli, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Dartmouth Memory Clinic, TALES pairs Dartmouth students with a “learning partner” who has Alzheimer’s, so that students can learn about the disease from the perspective of a companion and friend. “I was really excited about that,” Kaspar says.

“In high school I spent my summer and winter breaks working as a CNA in a nursing home,” Kaspar says. “In my last couple years there, I got to work on the Alzheimer’s unit, and I loved it.” She also did Alzheimer’s research at UCLA the summer before starting at DMS. Kaspar says that returning to experiential learning through TALES after studying the disease on a molecular basis has helped her to better see the big picture.

Shaping Attitudes

TALES is one of a number of Alzheimer’s support and education programs made possible by a gift from Charles Anderson, formerly of Woodstock, Vt., who established the The Jeanne Estee Mackay Anderson Alzheimer's Fund in memory of his late wife. Although Santulli modeled TALES after similar programs elsewhere, Dartmouth’s program is unique. “In our program, students learn about the disease through their interactions with patients and didactic teaching about Alzheimer’s, but our focus is on having the students learn about their partners not clinically, but as people,” he explains.

“What I really like about this program is that it’s very simple,” Kaspar says. “You’re there to talk to someone and get to know them, which you may not get the time to do as a physician or caregiver.”

In the long run, Santulli says, he hopes to create more positive attitudes about the disease. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding and stigma surrounding Alzheimer’s,” he says. “These students will be better able to handle the growing number of Alzheimer’s patients they will be seeing in just about every specialty. And they will be better able to interact with those patients as people.”

Learning from Each Other

TALES participants include not only MD students, but also students at The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice and Dartmouth College undergraduates. In addition to visiting (in pairs) with their learning partners once or twice a month for several months, students meet periodically as a group with Santulli to discuss their experiences.  “The intermingling of students has been a real benefit,” Santulli says. “The students learn from each other.”

Kaspar agrees. “I hear the other students talk about their experiences with their learning partners, so it’s as if I’m getting to know lots of different people. I think what I’ve learned in this program is going to stick even more because when I think about a certain problem or challenge, I’ll think about the people that go with it, too.”

Learning from Life

More than just an acronym, Santulli’s name for the TALES program also conveys its underlying goal. “I want students to tell me about their learning partner from the perspective of understanding that Alzheimer’s is just one part of who that person is,” he says. “Getting to know people with the disease provides lessons that go beyond what medical students learn in the classroom.”

“What I find with my learning partner is that you have to be present-focused,” Kaspar says. “Even though the progression of the disease is very sad, there are a lot of happy moments. When I asked my learning partner what advice he would give to someone who had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he laughed and just said, ‘Forget it!’”