How do you get an old person to be your friend?
I had a patient today, he's an 85 year old man, and he's lonely. His wife died about 9 months ago, and he's struggling. They were married for 60 years. He's retired, he doesn't have anything to do all day-- they spent their days together before she died, they played golf, they went to the movies, she cooked his meals. They never had any children, he doesn't have any other family nearby, and most of his friends have died. So now he goes to a local pizza place for most of his meals, putters around the house, watches TV.... He's tried joining some organizations, he's tried taking classes-- but he said he doesn't meet a lot of people his age, it's tiring to force himself to be active all the time, and he's lonely.
I spent an hour with him-- we're allowed to, our schedules are pretty loose in the outpatient clinic-- even though his medical problems were pretty minor. Honestly, I kind of wish there was a way to be his friend. I wish there was a sensible way for me to call him up and tell him I'll have dinner with him one of these nights, or we could go to the movies. I'm lonely, he's lonely-- and I just feel so bad for him. Married for 60 years and now she's gone-- and he's still in good enough health to enjoy his life, but he has nothing to live for.
I think part of it is I just want to help someone-- to actually help someone. For the past three months I've either been watching people die, or merely doing no harm.
Even the patients who get better-- it's not because of me. I'm ordering the same tests anyone else would, I'm making the same diagnoses anyone else can, anything difficult is being passed up the chain to the more senior residents or the attendings.
And maybe that's what being a doctor is really about, and we rarely get to actually make a difference or solve a problem no one else can (I guess surgeons get more of that). When I have my own patients hopefully I will develop relationships with them and that will be part of the reward, feeling like I'm part of their lives. But for now, I am a stranger passing through and, for the most part, I'm making no impact. I'm a medical robot.
But I felt a little bit of a connection to the guy today, I felt like I helped him-- even just by being someone he could talk to. I wish I could reach out and do more. Except if your doctor-- a third your age-- called you and said he wanted to be your friend, you'd probably hang up the phone. And you probably should.