Few medical students receive extensive classroom training about Alzheimer's disease or have much experience with someone diagnosed with the incurable, brain-robbing disease.
With as many as 5.4 million Americans living with Alzheimer's -- and that number expected triple by 2050 -- there's a pressing need for physicians who can recognize it, treat its symptoms, and better communicate with patients and their caregivers. That's where the Buddy Program comes in.
The program is helping improve medical student knowledge and familiarity with Alzheimer's, while heightening sensitivity and empathy towards dementia patients, according to recent research.
Created in 1998 by Darby Morhardt of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, the Buddy Program, pairs medical students with Alzheimer's patients, or "mentors." Morhardt presented research results from the program at a recent international Alzheimer's conference in Boston.
"It's very important to put a human face on this disease," says Morhardt, research professor in cognitive neurology at Northwestern's Alzheimer's Disease Center. "The students are spending most of their lives in a classroom and studying this illness in a textbook. And when they meet their buddies, they're seeing the human side of this illness and how someone is actually living with it on a day-to-day basis."
One mentor, Anne Shrank is helping medical school students get a look at Alzheimer's disease up close.
Diagnosed with early stage disease when she was 61, the former biology teacher has joined a buddy program at Northwestern University that pairs Alzheimer's patients with first-year med students.
Students don't take care of the patients. Instead patients teach the students what everyday life is like for someone with Alzheimer's.
"I've been an educator all my life," Schank, now 68, told NBCNews.com. "This is sort of a way of just being myself – being a person who can educate someone."
In the program, med students and their mentors are asked to get out of the hospital setting for their meetings, at least for four hours each month. Many doctor-patient pairs go for walks, a trip to a museum or zoo or for a meal.
The program can help ease the dramatic life changes that descend on the newly diagnosed patient.
"The crux of the thing is that when you are newly diagnosed, you often cannot work in the same capacity or do many of the activities you used to," Morhardt said. "But you might still want to participate and contribute in valuable ways."
Lee Haggenjos, a medical student at Northwestern who has been paired with Schank, says he's learned a lot from her.
"Anne is really incredible," he told NBC's Maria Schriver. "She is, you know, really intelligent, really open. It's really impressive, the courage that she has … to teach me about this so that I can help future patients while at the same time dealing with this herself."
Patients say their participation makes them feel useful—that they still have something to give before they lose self-awareness—and because of that, their self-esteem and self-worth are boosted.
"I've gotten a lot of pleasure out of mentoring him," Shrank told NBCNews.com.
Her husband, Bob Schank, sees the difference. "It's given Anne a chance to do something a little different with someone different – not just family and friends," he said. "She comes back very, very pleased."
The program, usually with different titles, has been replicated at Boston University, Dartmouth College and Washington University and other medical schools around the country.
Many medical students stay in touch with their mentor buddies over the course of their medical school careers. "It's not unusual for the person with dementia to not recognize their student maybe three or four years after, Morhardt says. "I often hear how a medical student has stayed in touch with the family after the person has died."
For Schank it's a chance to take back some control of her life. "I could get depressed," she told NBC News. "I could make me and everybody around me really miserable. Or I can just say, hey, I wouldn't choose this, but here it is and how can we make the best of it."