UA faculty members from the Arizona Geriatric Education Center will train hundreds of health-care workers on how to better care for senior patients.

The center won a five-year, $2 million federal grant to do the work.

Here are three ways in which it is intended to improve geriatric care.

1. More seniors will be cared for in a team setting.

The training's emphasis will be on team care - how nurses, physicians, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, public-health workers and social workers can work together to help a patient.

"Just like it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a team to care for an elder," said center Co-director Jane Mohler, a University of Arizona epidemiologist whose background is in nursing.

That's because they're some of the most complex patients a health-care worker sees, she said.

A patient could have several chronic diseases, such as heart failure and diabetes, plus complicating factors, such as a risk of falling. The patient could have 10 medicines that could interact with each other. And a doctor may get to spend only a few minutes with a patient, even though the patient has serious health issues.

The team might have to help a homebound person manage medicine, arrange for someone to care for a pet during a hospital stay, or help the patient find affordable medicine.

"A lot of it has to do with managing social situations, in addition to medical situations," Mohler said. "It's treating the whole person."

University Physicians Hospital at Kino will create a special unit to care for geriatric patients to make sure they receive the most appropriate care possible.

Researchers will look for improvement in the outcomes of patients in the new unit compared with those of patients treated before the unit was organized.

2. Health-care workers will be aware of geriatric syndromes.

They'll know to look out for delirium, falls, incontinence and frailty - syndromes that can decrease a person's life span and have high associated costs, Mohler said.

Frailty - when a person has lost weight, finds it hard to stand, is slow to move and has a poor grip - can be treated with rehabilitation. But patients might not get the help they need unless a health-care provider recognizes the syndrome, Mohler said.

Another syndrome, delirium, can be caused by an infection, a new medication or the stress of a hospital stay. University Medical Center already is implementing a program to train health-care workers in the emergency room and the intensive-care unit to recognize and prevent it.

3. Medical students will get an attitude adjustment.

Ever feel like your doctor looks at you and just sees an old person?

"Very few people get real, deep training in geriatrics," Mohler said. UA residents receive only one month of training in geriatrics.

The education plan includes training for more than 800 students in Tucson and Phoenix.

For part of the time, students will be matched with an active senior in their community. They might go to a gym or go hiking together to learn about healthy aging.

"Most of the aging community are not debilitated," Mohler said. "Medical students get the idea that elders are all sick, and that's so not true."

"Sometimes we do hear the stories, and people (say), 'I'm 80 years old, and the doctor's kind of looking at me and wondering exactly what to do with me,' " said Debra Adams, chief operating officer at the Pima Council on Aging.

She said it's exciting to think that medical professionals could better understand that "you may not change the chronic condition, but you may be able to help their quality of life and how they look at their medical conditions and adapt to them and cope with them."

Contact reporter Becky Pallack at bpallack@azstarnet.com or 807-8012.