Student Hannah with resident Neville at Scalabrini

What happens when students call an aged care facility home

30 September 2019
Intergenerational living aims to benefit students and older people in care
It's not every day your neighbours are 160 older people with dementia or age-related care needs, but for four health sciences students at the University of Sydney, its home.

An innovative new program that sees University of Sydney allied health students live in an aged care facility in exchange for volunteer hours is exposing students to the realities of ageing, and the benefits of intergenerational friendship.

The Gold Soul Companionship program, profiled in the industry magazine Journal of Dementia Care, commenced at the Scalabrini Bexley care home in Sydney in 2018. Four students live on-site in a self-contained apartment and spend time building relationships with residents.

“It’s been amazing, just having the time and opportunity to interact with the residents and their families has been really rewarding,” said second-year Master of Physiotherapy student Hannah who moved away from family in Queensland to study in Sydney.

“I built a really strong friendship with Eva, a wonderful lady who spoke only Greek. We immediately had a connection over music and her daughter helped me find music from when she was young that she really responded to.

“Friendships like this are something I’ll always take with me.”

Students and residents in wheelchairs or walking up hill

Residents and students at Scalabrini Bexley. Image credit: ABC News

Dr Sanetta Du Toit, Coordinator of the Gold Soul Companionship program at the University of Sydney said the experiences the students have had, and friendships they have made, are beyond any clinical training the University could offer.

“The program focuses on students supporting residents who may be lonely and isolated due to not speaking English anymore or losing their ability to remember people,” said occupational therapist Dr Du Toit from the Faculty of Health Sciences.

“Internationally studies have shown that students in the health professions often have negative attitudes towards older people, but this program gives students the opportunity to see a resident as a human first, and not as a patient or professional client.

“It’s about who the person is today and their day-to-day living, but also about their past and their future. Being able to embrace that and understand that, can make such a difference to the level of insight our students have.”

Early findings from the program, presented at the National Occupational Therapy Conference, highlighted the positive impact the program is having on residents, their families, the staff and the students.

As well as regular communications with Dr Du Toit and team, students are supported by Tracey Gill, the Wellbeing Coordinator at Scalabrini, who Hannah labels “practically a mum.”

For Scalabrini staff, it has been inspiring to see the special relationships formed between students and residents.

“Seeing how the students have been able to overcome some of the communication barriers, sometimes by just being present in the moment, has been truly amazing,” said Tracey.

Older lady using snapchat

Scalabrini resident Patricia says having the students around keeps her young.
Image credit: ABC News 

Hannah, who has been living at Scalabrini for close to a year now, admits it wasn’t easy at first and it took the students some time to find their feet.

“At first the residents and even the staff didn’t really know why we were there. We had to do a lot of research to find our place and find the kind of programs or strategies that would work, like our music program and the rabbit we have brought in for pet therapy,” she said.

“It’s also difficult when any of the residents pass away as it’s our job to build relationships and that often means you get quite attached.”

Next steps

The team will publish a qualitative analysis on how the program contributes to the meaningful engagement of residents, as well as areas for improvement, in coming months.

Associate Professor in Ageing and Health, Lee-Fay Low, who has also overseen intergeneration programs with pre-schoolers in aged-care, said programs such as this can be challenging to implement but can have immense benefits.

”The research consistently shows that having programs where older and younger people are able to interact, increases the wellbeing of residents and are a learning opportunity for younger people. There is also growing evidence about cost-effectiveness,” said Associate Professor Low.

The Gold Soul Companionship program was founded by Colin McDonnell, formerly of Scalabrini and Sister Maria Elena Figueroa from Scalabrini, in collaboration with Associate Professor Lee-Fay Low and Dr Sanetta Du Toit from the University’s Faculty of Health Sciences. It is the first program of its kind for allied health students in Australia.

Declaration: The program is fully funded by Scalabrini Village Ltd. Research into the program is being carried out independently by the University of Sydney.

Hero image: Student Hannah and Scalabrini resident Neville. Credit: ABC News 

Michelle Blowes

Media and PR Adviser (Health)

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