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Students Experience Elderly Issues

June 9, 2016

The human body, with its numerous systems and their integration, is amazing. 

We do our best to take care of our bodies, but there are some aspects to life that we can’t control.  Aging, accidents, birth defects, and diseases are some ways that our bodies’ normal functions can be compromised. 

As part of the Health Care Management Program, students in Associate Professor of Healthcare and Operations Management Jill Klingner’s Long-term Care Course’s Experiential Class (dove into a first-hand experience with some common body issues.  Through props, students were able to experience some of the inhibiting effects of macular degeneration, incontinence, and loss of mobility in an arm and the dominate hand, hearing, and walking ability.

 Other than knowing that they would have to put on Depends brand undergarments or adult diapers, the class new nothing of this entirely experiential class. They came in with some expectations. “I want to find out what it feels like as a resident of an assisted living facility,” said T.J. Minor, a junior, before the class began.

“I believe it will be more challenging than I expect,” said senior Jordan Campbell.

“I’m looking forward to having a good perspective of the difficulties that people who are in nursing homes face day to day,” said Lindsay Lepinski, a junior who has family members who need extended care.

After the initial nervous but excited chatter died down, Klingner instructed students to take an adult undergarment/diaper and put it on either under or over their regular pants.  Anyone uncomfortable with the task could opt out.

With the class beginning at 6:00, Klingner got into the empathy mode too, donning her undergarment at 4:30 p.m. “It’s hot,” she exclaimed, with an aside to clarify that she meant temperature and not aesthetically pleasing.  “Naturally it’s plastic coated, but that sure makes it hot.”

Students lamented the fit, the uncomfortable cumbersome feel, the problem with trying to put on the diapers with tabs vs. pull up briefs. Klingner asked them,” as a care giver, how often do you change these on someone?” “How would you feel having been in one for several hours?”  “What if your caregiver provided an incorrect size or style for you – how does that matter?”

While keeping their adult undergarments on, students added ear plugs to mimic hearing loss and were asked questions softly. “What couldn’t you do for fun, work, and education with limited hearing?” What would you miss every day?” Klingner noted that hearing aids cost approximately $10,000 a pair.

Next, students with glasses were provided circular stickers to place on each lens, illustrating how macular degeneration starts in the center of a person’s line of vision.

Adding to their arsenal, the students received large work gloves that they put on their dominate hand and then were told to call someone with their phone.  Makeshift gauze slings were added to further debilitate reaching. 

Switching one shoe with another participant with a similar size foot demonstrated that you are not the one who will go to the store to buy your clothes and shoes if you’re in a nursing home. Thus, you may end up with ill-fitting and uncomfortable shoes.

Lastly, students either were provided a walker or a makeshift cane that Klingner made from PVC piping. The explained how to use the cane on the side of the injured leg and when going upstairs to start with the injured leg, thus the cane, first.

Donning all of their experimental devises, everyone was tasked with going from LSBE room 129 to the second floor via stairs or elevator. There they had to grab a newspaper and carry it with them back downstairs. 

Back in the classroom the students broke into groups of caregivers and patients, each with a prescribed set of instructions – i.e. a patient must ask any question of their caregiver each time their one-minute timer goes off. This illustrates not only the need for human interaction that an inbound patient has but also the balance and patience a caregiver has to have in concentrating on required tasks while responding.

The exercise was an eye-opener for the students.

“I was able to experience how difficult it has to be for a caretaker,” said Minor. “The biggest thing I take away from this is how much decision-making power that seniors lose. I never realized that a great number of seniors essentially have no control over their own lives, which is terribly sad to me.”

Lepinski’s eyes were opened to the role of caregivers.

“In the patient-caregiver exercise, I was a caregiver, “said Lepinski. I couldn’t believe how difficult it was to care for multiple people with different needs. I expected caregivers to have the easier time.  I realized that people who work in these facilities are under appreciated by employers and the families that have their loved ones in these facilities. I think it is vastly underestimated the amount of work that these care providers do.”

Campbell also cited the patient-caregiver exercise as the “aha” moment.

“The caregivers quickly became overwhelmed because of miscommunication (between what the caregiver was to perform and what the patient was told to expect) and started providing a lower quality of care,” said Campbell.  A good portion of the elderly and disabled population is unable to advocate for themselves, especially the elderly in nursing homes. We need to be giving these individuals as much autonomy as possible so that these miscommunications are less prevalent. We also need to be staffing accordingly so that our caregivers have the time and energy to solve these reoccurring issues.”

She added, “I believe the most important take away is that a person can only truly be sensitive to something if it’s something they’ve experienced before or have been with a loved one while that person experienced it. After our class, the students collectively agreed that we have a great deal more respect for not only the elderly but also those with disabilities—and the caregivers! Jill’s exercises gave us a deeper understanding than we had experienced before. Each of us, especially with walking around the school in adult diapers, accepted some level of humility. These experiences are important because of the growing elderly population and the fact that people are living longer. It’s an exercise every person should have to experience because one of the only sure things in life is that each morning you wake up, you’re one day closer to having this exercise possibly become your reality.”