EDITOR’S NOTE: As part of their coursework in civic engagement, students at Pace University Lienhard School of Nursing conducted a field study in gerontology at Morningside House in the Bronx, with residents who had varying degrees of dementia and Alzheimers disease. The students conducted activities that incorporated sensory stimulation, and through weekly tea socials, touch stimulation, and music, they connected with the residents in ways they did not expect. Here is their story.
Since we are required to take a course in civic engagement as students of Pace University, Lienhard School of Nursing, we chose a field study course in Gerontology: Aging in America at Morningside House in The Bronx.
At first, we did not fully understand the meaning of civic engagement or the relationship of it to health. However, we quickly learned that civic engagement creates positive outcomes for the community and for those who live there.
After we met the residents we would be working with at Morningside House, we decided to create a program that would include sensory stimulation activities a tea social, sensory stimulation, and music. These individuals were diagnosed with various degrees of dementia and Alzheimers disease.
Our first step was to send out invitations You are invited to a tea party to those involved in our program, which automatically generated curiosity and excitement. We escorted the residents down to the tea room, where we had music playing and the table set with white china, coffee, tea, and assorted baked goods. Over the weeks, we decorated the room according to our theme for the week flowers, autumn, or Caribbean, for example.
Initially, we asked one another What would we talk about? Would the residents respond to us? Would they remember us? Our fears were unfounded. A Caribbean market painting triggered conversation from some of the residents who were from the Caribbean. They began to discuss the markets that they visited when they were younger. They told some stories about their lives and shared fond memories. What we also learned was that even if some members were quiet, it did not mean they were not engaged. One nursing students says
You know, it is funny but I find myself using the communication techniques that I learned in my very first nursing course. At that time I would wonder what I was learning this for. Now I know.
As we repeated our program each week, we discovered that although many did not remember our names from the prior week, they remembered our coming together to share, smile, talk, and eat. It made us realize that caring for a resident goes beyond the physical to include spiritual, emotional, psychological, cultural, and family elements.
Music through the ages
In the music session, we helped the residents recall popular music they have heard over the years and reflect on the theme or artist. We began with three residents; however, before long this small group grew to more than 12. One of the visitors said, The music could be heard throughout the unit; it seemed that the whole floor was getting into it. In fact, the nursing attendants and housekeeping staff would start dancing hand-in-hand with the residents.
Residents who usually did not speak or interact became engaged by tapping their feet, clapping, and singing along with the music. Some residents danced with us to the Latin beat, the electric slide, and the great song by Frank Sinatra, New York, New York. One student says
We are aware now that all residents need to be treated with respect, dignity, and with common courtesies of simple conversation. Just because these residents do not initiate or participate in conversation does not mean they are not there.
Connect through the senses
During the 10-week period our groups focus was to engage and connect with individuals through the senses. Using a portable cart equipped with various items such as essential oils, massage lotions, colorful lights, aroma diffusers, and massaging chair pads, we worked with residents on a one-to-one basis at their bedside or in a defined area on the unit.
We were hoping for immediate responses that would let us know whether we were effective. As time progressed, we learned that the connection varied from resident to resident and could not be predicted or timed. For example, here are some students reflections
One of the residents was initially withdrawn and did not leave her room at all, so I went to her room. Over the weeks she began to come to the general meeting place to find me. She would sing songs from her homeland Italy, and I felt as if it was her gift to us.
When I first met her she was wandering the halls in an agitated state, yelling hello. In time she chose to participate by sitting in the massage chair and not moving; we began to massage, whisper, and talk with her. Although she would suddenly spring up and roam the halls, she would ALWAYS return to the chair. In time she allowed us to stay close to her, rest her head on one of our shoulders, and allow us to clasp her hand.
It wasnt long before staff joined in and requested that some other residents be involved. For example, one of the nursing attendants asked if we would work with one individual who was diagnosed with Picks Disease. We felt rewarded because we knew that our interventions could also be measured by the positive responses from staff members who knew these residents intimately and wanted them included in our program.