Developing an identity as a physician and subsequently as a specialist in a particular medical field is a process that closely mirrors the general process of childhood and adulthood development. Specifically, both processes include the sequential acquisition of knowledge, the mastery of tasks, and the shaping of one’s sense of identity. Because of the similarity of these processes, it should not be surprising that success in either process requires similar ingredients. For example, both processes involve parenting or mentoring by individuals who are older and more experienced, and both involve interactions with siblings or peers.
As I look back over the 17 years since I finished my fellowship in geriatric psychiatry, I realize that the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry (AAGP) has served as my professional extended family and, in this way, has been an essential part of my ongoing professional development. My membership in the AAGP has helped me keep my knowledge base up-to-date, allowed me to establish and maintain relationships with a number of important mentors, introduced me to colleagues who have subsequently become dear friends, and given me opportunities to give back to my community in various ways.
One of the goals included in the AAGP’s mission statement is “to enhance the knowledge base and standard of practice in geriatric psychiatry through education and research.” The association achieves this goal in a variety of ways. The AAGP was founded in 1978, and since 1988 it has held annual scientific meetings during which members may attend lectures, workshops, and scientific paper and poster presentations in order to learn about the latest developments in the field. Membership in the AAGP also includes a subscription to the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry News, the organization’s official journal and newsletter, respectively. Each year, the organization also organizes regional clinical practice workshops on pertinent topics, such as proper billing and fair reimbursement for eldercare.
As a fellowship program director and someone who feels passionately about increasing the number of well-trained geriatric psychiatry specialists, I am especially pleased that the AAGP has developed a number of programs to introduce early career physicians to the field. Each year since 1990, the association has awarded six 2-year fellowships in order to generate interest in geriatric psychiatry among psychiatry residents. Each year since 1995, the AAGP, along with the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), has sponsored a summer research institute for undergraduates and medical students. In 1997, the AAGP created the Stepping Stones Program to explain to residents the benefits of fellowship training in geriatric psychiatry and to assist fellows in career planning. Benefits to the participants include reimbursement for travel to and from the AAGP annual meeting and for the meeting registration fee. Each year at the annual meeting, the Stepping Stones Program and the Training Directors Program are held concurrently and usually in adjacent conference rooms.
While at the meeting, the Stepping Stones participants attend a number of activities, including a networking luncheon and a reception with training directors. I have attended these events for the past several years and have found them to be both useful and fun. While at these events, one of the ways I help early career psychiatrists understand the value of geriatric psychiatry training is to pose the question “If you were 45 years old, would you want to receive your primary medical care from a pediatrician?” This helps emphasize the point that physiological and psychological differences between a 2-year-old and a 45-year-old are of the same magnitude as those between a 45-year-old and a 90-year-old.
The AAGP has allowed me to learn from and befriend some of the most talented educators, researchers, and clinicians in the field. At one of my very first AAGP annual meetings, I met and had a series of interactions with Barry Lebowitz, Ph.D., who was, at that time, the chief of the geriatrics research branch at NIMH and who has since become a wonderful friend and mentor. His passion for the field was contagious, and his belief in my ability to succeed in academic geropsychiatry helped to keep me on that path at a time when my self-doubt and anxiety were pointing me in another direction.
My friendship with Dr. Lebowitz is just one of dozens of friendships I have formed through my participation in the AAGP. Thanks to the AAGP, I have befriended colleagues from all over the country, including Florida, New York, Illinois, Washington, Oregon, and Hawaii. These friendships continually remind me of how personal relationships with people and networking significantly affect so many aspects of medicine, such as research, training, and policy development. These relationships nourish and fortify me. Through these friendships, I am able to better understand the issues that confront my colleagues and to learn from their experiences. I may know better whom to call to find the information I need about a variety of issues, such as the qualifications of a residency or fellowship applicant or the experience with a particular new medication or who is doing research in a particular area. Through these friendships I am also able to share and to laugh about my career successes and failures and to take comfort in being reminded that certain experiences are more universal than I had thought.
The 2006 AAGP annual meeting was held in San Juan, Puerto Rico. While at the meeting, I had lunch with Judith Crossett, M.D., who is the geropsychiatry fellowship director at the University of Iowa. As an alumnus of the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, I enjoyed very much the opportunity to receive up-to-date information about some of my friends and colleagues in Iowa City and about some of the new buildings and other changes on campus. I also learned about some of the things that she does to make a good impression when interviewing fellowship applicants, and I plan to borrow some of her ideas. I especially liked that she invites the candidates to her home for a home-cooked meal and the opportunity to dine with a few faculty members or current fellows.
More recently, I have had the opportunity to give back to my professional community and to the larger community in which we live. I have had the opportunity to be a lecturer for the AAGP in a variety of settings, including practice workshops and the board review course at the annual meeting. I have also been able to participate in efforts to improve mental health care for older adults through the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation (GMHF), which grew out of the AAGP. In fact, the second half of the organization’s mission statement is to advocate the mental health needs of older adults. At last year’s annual meeting, the GMHF arranged for David Shenk, author of The Forgetting (1), to speak as part of a fundraising event. His book is one of a number of recently published books that is helping to educate the general public about Alzheimer’s disease.
Last, but not least, through my attendance at AAGP annual meetings, I have had the opportunity to relax and play in a variety of special places with some really wonderful people. For example, in 2002, when the annual meeting was in Orlando, Fla., we had the Universal Studios Theme Park all to ourselves for an entire evening. In 2004, our annual meeting was held in Baltimore, Md., and the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation arranged an educational program and dinner reception that concluded with several hours for attendees and our significant others to tour the National Aquarium.
Psychiatric organizations and societies play a unique role in professional development. As a geriatric psychiatrist, the AAGP has helped me and continues to help me cultivate my professional sense of self and, in that way, has been my professional extended family. My membership in the AAGP has made it relatively easy for me to keep up with the latest developments in the field. Through my membership in AAGP I have connected with a number of important mentors and colleagues who have subsequently become dear friends. The AAGP has also helped me resolve what Erik Erikson might have called the “generativity versus stagnation stage” of my professional development through providing me with opportunities to mentor, to teach, and to advocate the mental health needs of older individuals.