Griffith student partnership bridges the gap between old and young

27 September 2021

A pilot project in partnership with Griffith University is underway, aimed at finding innovative ways to reduce loneliness and isolation among aged care residents, a problem only exacerbated during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The ‘Biography Project’ matches Griffith University humanities, social sciences and medical science students – some of whom are the doctors of the future – with long-term residents in Southern Cross Care Queensland’s (SCCQ) aged care homes, who develop a social connection together.

Three students are undertaking to write the biographies of residents at Holland Park (Duhig Village), including second year Bachelor of Fine Arts student, Anna McMahon who has been matched with SCC Holland Park resident, 93-year-old Sister Ursula O’Dwyer.  A further 28 students are participating in five weeks of telephone companionship across all SCCQ’s homes

The residents share their stories, memories and wisdom with the students, who gain valuable insights into the challenges of ageing while building meaningful one-on-one intergenerational connections.

Prior to being matched with residents, Biography Project students undergo a police check and participate in intensive training in working with vulnerable persons, including people with dementia, cultural sensitivity and deep listening.

“It’s been genuinely uplifting for me to spend time with someone who has such a poetic perspective of life, an extraordinary life.  When Sr Ursula reflects, she really finds meaning in life and is always so positive. It’s been quite nurturing for me to hear her talk about her triumphs, and regrets and struggles.  It’s been very grounding and she has become a friend within the context of a professional relationship,” student Anna McMahon said.

“She is also a good listener and is equipping me with the skills in listening,” she added.

Sr Ursula said the process had been useful in reflecting on her life and better understand what mattered.

“It has helped me to pinpoint what was significant and I’ve been able to fill in things from history that young people don’t know about,” she said.

The Biography Project is the brain-child of Professor Catherine Dhavernas, who has developed the program over the past three years.  It is now being offered as a core elective of fieldwork for students enrolled in the Bachelor of Medical Science and the Bachelor of Biomedical Science degrees at Griffith University, both precursors for studying medicine, enriching the students’ understanding as much as the experience of the older participants.

Prof Dhavernas explained how the students undertaking to write a biography of the residents are engaging with their matched residents.

“Over a six to eight-week period, students and residents meet once or twice a week either, by Zoom or over the phone (due to the current COVID environment), depending on the resident’s preference. They may talk for 30 minutes, or up to an hour and a half each time, as the student records and transcribes the older person’s life, which is eventually presented to the resident and their family as a bound biography free of charge,” Prof Dhavernas explained.

“During the process, older adults and young people get to know each other and develop meaningful relationships based on mutual exchange, trust and connection. At the end of the process, students are given the opportunity to continue to meet with the resident.  An additional copy of the biography is kept for research and teaching purposes to improve the programs and services offered, so everyone benefits,” she said.

“We are grateful for the opportunity to work with Southern Cross Care whose staff has embraced the students and the projects.”

Southern Cross Care Queensland Chief of People & Mission, Michael Hart welcomed the opportunity to be part of the nation-leading and innovative Biography Project with Griffith University.

“This project has the potential to not only reduce loneliness and isolation among our residents but also boost training and education opportunities among the health care providers of tomorrow, which will ultimately improve long-term aged care.”

“We anticipate the project will give elderly people a voice, a sense of dignity, belonging and connection, break down intergenerational divides and help build stronger communities,” Michael said.