Live-in students turning aged care Outside In

Teaching residents how to use Facebook to connect with loved ones during lockdown. Investigating equipment options to help a resident recover and flourish at home after surgery. Researching sensory boxes for residents with dementia. And organising a socially distanced Anzac Day service.

These are just some of the things Peter Chan and Tiffany Law have done as part of an innovative intergenerational program that has seen the occupational therapy students living and volunteering during the past year at Calvary Nazareth Retirement Community near Newcastle.

The Outside In program is a collaboration between Calvary and the University of Newcastle. After experiencing a number of twists and turns due to Covid-19 lockdowns, the pilot program is continuing until at least the end of this year.

It is just one innovation that Calvary has introduced to enhance the wellbeing of its aged care residents and those living with dementia.

Calvary’s National Executive Aged Care Advisor Luke Sams says a similar live-in program is slated for Calvary Ryde Retirement Community in Sydney when restrictions ease. It will partner with the University of Sydney and involve a wider group of allied health students, such as physiotherapists, OTs and speech therapists.

A pilot student-led occupational therapy program started last year at Calvary St Joseph’s retirement community, also in Newcastle, but had to be delivered via telehealth because of Covid restrictions. It is hoped the in-reach program can recommence mid-year.

“One of the benefits of this program is that it has exposed people early in their career rather than 10 years down the track,” Mr Sams says. “Hopefully they might want to stay in the aged care sector, and they can talk to other students that are coming through about being a part of it.”

Lecturer in Occupational Therapy and practice education manager in the School of Health Sciences at the University of Newcastle, Kylie Wales, says the university is passionate about producing work-ready graduates.

“Knowing how to speak with people with dementia, knowing how to connect – it’s a different level of communication and those interpersonal skills are what Peter and Tiffany are ultimately going to walk away with,” says Dr Wales.

“I could just see these huge benefits for our students in learning about working with older people, about learning those communication skills but also in terms of companionship – and I could also see that for the residents as well. So I was really excited to be a part of the program.”

“What Peter and Tiffany have been able to do in the past year has been wonderful,” she said.

The students live in refurbished independent living units in the retirement community, which also includes a residential aged care home specialising in caring for people living with dementia.

It was initially intended that they volunteer in the care home. Then Covid hit and the program was forced to take a different tack and Peter and Tiffany began to do more things with the independent living residents than initially planned. The students did a letterbox drop to let residents know they were there and were happy to help. It was a useful and timely pivot.

“It was better to send Peter and Tiffany to fight over toilet paper than one of the residents,” Dr Wales said, recalling the long shopping queues and shortages in the early months of the pandemic.

Tiffany says she was “excited but a bit nervous” at first.

“I think at the beginning there is always a stigma about people with dementia but it’s not as scary as it sounds, and it is very beneficial for everyone to learn more and build relationships with older generations.”

Peter also saw the mutual benefits. “Because we are not from the same generation, the elderly residents are being refreshed by some of our ideas that they might not know, and we are being refreshed by them because we are learning about their stories and a lot of stories that we don’t know,” he says.

Mr Sams sees these types of innovative programs as part of the future of aged care.

“What it is showing is the value of relationships,” he said.

That makes it a great fit for Calvary.

“Good aged care is all about developing relationships and seeing people not as a symptom or as an older, frail person but as an individual, and seeing that they have experience and can still contribute. This program encourages the students to learn and to understand that older people are a valuable part of our community and can still contribute back into that community.”

Click here to listen to an ABC radio interview with Tiffany and Peter about their experiences.