Occupational therapy students provide valuable services to elderly people in rural Victoria

  • Students Erin Fahey (left) and Madeline Nixon (right) putting on an education session for nursing staff. Photo: Charmaine Swanson
    Students Erin Fahey (left) and Madeline Nixon (right) putting on an education session for nursing staff. Photo: Charmaine Swanson
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Going Rural Health Student Support Program, University of Melbourne
Charmaine Swanson, Community Placement Co-ordinator
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Occupational therapy students undertaking a placement at a small rural health service in Victoria have been providing a much valued service to elderly people in the hostel and transitional care program.

One of the highlights for the students whilst on placement was facilitating a weekly mental health occupational therapy group for residents in the hostel. The students identified the need to support residents to maintain cognitive functioning, improve their opportunities to socialise and improve their mood. The group activities were developed specifically to meet the individual needs of the group members and this included hearing and visual impairments.

The students developed well-researched weekly topics based on the interests of the residents. Applying occupational therapy models of practice the group allowed residents to reminisce, evoking positive emotions whilst learning more about one another. Staff and students noticed how one resident with a speech difficulty began to feel more comfortable as the weeks went by and this allowed him to engage in the discussions overcoming his speech difficulty.

Observing the group, nursing staff gained a better understanding of the role of occupational therapy in the mental health of elderly people. Staff were also able to see one-on-one work which students undertook with those residents living with dementia. The occupational therapy students were able to identify the strengths of these residents and engage them in meaningful activities which reduced their anxiety and restfulness. One-on-one activities included mindfulness colouring and use of a dementia-specific app.

The occupational therapy students further undertook assessments of activities of daily living and home assessments for residents in the transitional care program. Students, supported by their occupational therapy supervisor, were able to recommend treatment and/or prescribe much needed equipment to allow for independent living and better quality of life for the elderly clients.

On a more broad service delivery level the students undertook a review of the pressure care of all residents. They compiled an education session on current best practice in pressure care which was delivered to nursing staff. The nursing staff engaged enthusiastically in the education session asking questions they had about how to best use specific pressure care cushions and shared challenges they experience in pressure for specific areas of the body.

The health service benefited from hosting the students in that more residents were able to be supported by occupational therapy services and staff were able to gain a greater understanding of when to refer to occupational therapy.

The students experienced a rewarding placement as they found the staff of the small rural town to be extremely welcoming, supportive and grateful for their input. As future occupational therapists the students left the placement having a greater knowledge of occupational therapy services to the elderly whilst gaining a deeper understanding of the realities of rural health care. One student, nearing the end of her degree, expressed her gratitude for the placement as she felt that the placement had helped her feel confident to apply for a position in aged care where she now felt inspired to play a role in providing much needed care for the elderly people of Australia.

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