Study reveals health benefits of listening to elders' stories

A study into the health benefits of residents of a Mildura aged care residence recounting their life stories has led to changes in the way medical students are trained in the care of the elderly.

Monash Rural Health researchers trialled placing students for one afternoon per week with an aged care resident, to better understand the social and emotional issues, rather than just the medical issues. Students were encouraged to undertake activities such as reading, listening to music and conversation.

Collecting stories to ease loneliness

Isolation and loneliness are at the heart of Australia’s aged care crisis, according to Associate Professor Fiona Wright, Director of Monash Rural Health Mildura. It was in a conversation about the need to address this elder isolation with former Mildura Rural City Councillor Vernon Knight that the idea for the Mallee Living Histories project was germinated.

In 2019 the Princes Court Homes in Mildura was approached to take part in a program where volunteer writers would sit with residents with the aim of writing their life stories; both for the benefit of the resident storytellers and to capture their recollections as a way to remember the actual histories of the region.

The writers are a group of retired and semi-retired community members who volunteered for the program. These stories were published in 2020 in an anthology called Mallee Living Histories.

A sense of accomplishment

Dr Tammy Smith conducted focus groups and interviews with staff, storytellers and their families at the Princes Court Homes (PCH). Michael Oates assisted her in conducting sessions with the writers, at Monash Rural Health Mildura. These were recorded for accuracy and to enable maximum participation in each session. In total 39 people participated in the project evaluation sessions including, Princes Court Homes staff, friends and family of storytellers, 14 of the 15 writers and 15 of the 16 storytellers.

Some of the writers commented that they had never completed a written project of this type and this gave them a sense of accomplishment while others had more experience as writers; others formed friendships. For the story tellers/residents of Princes Court Homes the project gave them an opportunity to have someone focused solely on them. One writer commented: “There were storytellers going from ‘It’s just my life, it’s not important’, to wanting a second book. We’ve validated their lives really.”

The review of the program by Dr Smith and Associate Professor Wright revealed that most storytellers and writers have formed friendships that have persisted beyond the writing phase. The effect on wellbeing through reducing loneliness and forming connections is implicit, but not quantified, according to Dr Wright who hopes this will be further explored in the next iteration.

Student training focus shifts to social interaction

The program has also led to changes in the way medical students participate in aged care placements. In previous years, medical students were placed for three to five days of their six-week aged care placement at a residential aged care facility, primarily shadowing a nurse as they went about daily duties. Students also shadow general practitioners or other medical personnel on an ad hoc basis. According to Associate Professor Wright, this naturally put the focus of the placement on the medical care of residents.

In parallel with the Mallee Living Histories, the Monash Rural Health researchers trialled placing students for one afternoon per week with the resident (the same resident  each week) with the aim that students would better understand the social and emotional issues facing long-term residents of such facilities, rather than only the medical issues. Students were encouraged to undertake activities of the residents’ choosing, whether it be reading to them, listening to music, doing puzzles, talking and so on. Previous research has shown that loneliness in the elderly is common and can have adverse consequences for health and wellbeing.

Because of COVID restrictions, only two students were able to undertake this type of placement before these restrictions resulted in students being unable to attend aged care facilities.

“We intend to reinstate this style of placement once restrictions are lifted. With an increasing aged population, graduating students will inevitably have frequent contact with this demographic, and it is important that students have a holistic understanding of their needs,” Associate Professor Wright said.