Yiming Li found her passion in working with seniors at a very young age. She explains that while she was growing up in Dalian, China, her parents were very busy people and so she spent a lot of time with her grandparents. Developing that close relationship with both sets of her grandparents made her realize that there were some serious gaps in how China is addressing aging.
“China is an aging country with many older adults,” explains Li. “Yet, the government there isn’t focused on seniors issues.”
Li landed in Canada in 2013 to study at the University of Alberta’s Department in Human Ecology, Majoring in Family Ecology and Minoring in Aging. Now in her fourth year of studies, she’s spending her practicum working with GEF Seniors Housing’s Community Supports team on the Quality of Life survey and on surveys for people transitioning into living in GEF Seniors Housing buildings.
The surveys themselves aren’t particularly intensive and more rely on conversation and discovery as opposed to question and answers. The aims of the surveys are to identify keys points in the individuals that will help them live with a good quality of life while calling a GEF Seniors Housing building home and to find where key areas of services are lacking so the team can develop new programs based on the data from the surveys.
Through the surveys that Li has conducted so far, she has noticed a trend toward loneliness and isolation, especially in people with English as a second language or limited skills in English. Li saw this as an opportunity, especially with the large population of people living at Montgomery Place whose first language is Mandarin.
“Because of the language barrier, some of the people living at Montgomery Place had some frustrating experiences,” explains Li. “So when I first called to interview them, they were very hesitant to speak to me and didn’t want to participate in any of the survey work I was doing.”
Even speaking Mandarin over the phone didn’t break any of the barriers these people had, Li points out. So she had to rethink her approach in trying to reach a segment of GEF Seniors Housing’s population who needed connection. With calling on the phone no longer being a viable option, Li started making regular treks to Montgomery Place during the regular coffee hour in hopes of connecting with the Mandarin speaking population face to face.
Meeting face to face proved to be a huge success for Li. She quickly noticed how much more comfortable the people were when they met with Li in person and how happy they were to talk with her about the things that would help give them a good quality of life. Through her experience working with the people living at Montgomery Place, Li wants the rest of her practicum at GEF Seniors Housing to be focused on the Chinese populations in the building and to connect with them on a level that may be lacking for them.
“A bigger goal from all of this is to have a volunteer program where people who can speak the language come in and connect with the seniors who are experiencing isolation,” explains Li.
Once her practicum ends and she graduates from the University of Alberta, Li hopes to go back to China and implement much of what she has learned to the Chinese seniors industry. She explains that her country has a long way to go before even catching up to Canadian standards for aging and seniors programs and thinks that her education could make an impact on the Chinese systems.
“There is very little seniors housing available and what is available isn’t very professionally run,” says Li. “I hope to work with the seniors housing organizations in China and start to make some changes based on the things I learned while working with GEF Seniors Housing.”
Jenna Toogood and Saleen Shivji walk down one of the back halls at Kiwanis Place towards the work room where they, along with the rest of their group from their Nursing 202 class, meet to discuss the day’s activities and hold different clinical services for the seniors living in the building. Today, the nursing students are hosting a blood pressure clinic. A long line stretches out from the room and down the hall of seniors looking to take advantage of the services the students are offering to help the young nurses gain some real world experience.
“I was not expecting this many people to be waiting to have their blood pressure checked,” Shivji says with a laugh.
Both Shivji and Toogood are their second year of nursing studies at the University of Alberta. They explain that their first year of studies was heavily focused on classroom lectures and that the second year is their first chance to go out into the community and put what they’ve been learning into practice. As Toogood explains, she and Shivji both had some preconceived notions as to what their experiences were going to be working in a seniors apartment and lodge.
“I really didn’t understand the difference between nursing homes and independent seniors living,” says Toogood. “I was really surprised to see how healthy and active everyone at Kiwanis Place is and my experiences here have really changed my assumptions as to what seniors and aging are like.”
Toogood and Shivji are part of just one group of seven nursing students spending their semester at Kiwanis Place. All nine GEF Seniors housing lodges are hosting nursing students for the semester, totalling more than 100 nursing students receiving their first practical health care experiences working with seniors. The students work with the seniors directly on different real world project like documenting health history and wellness clinic such as hand massages. For Toogood and Shivji, the regular daily activity they wound up enjoying most surprised them.
“I think there is this big generation gap between me and the seniors who are living here, so I love just talking with them and hearing all of their stories,” says Shivji.
“When you’re in a classroom all day, you don’t interact much with people and that therapeutic communication is so important when working as a nurse. It’s building a good relationship and a lot of trust that can do so much for a person’s health and wellbeing,” says Toogood.
The group of Nursing 202 students working at the Virginia Park lodge echo Shivji and Toogood’s sentiment on the importance of communicating with the patients. In fact, the previous week’s clinical work for the students was focused entirely on connecting with a resident and beginning the process of building trust.
“Having that good communication and connection with the resident helps the healing process,” says Carlina Allegretto, one of the students in the Virginia Park group. “It’s treating the emotional side of healing, which can have a powerful effect.”
Brook Sherwin, another student from the Virginia Park group, explains how the connections from the previous week has helped them in their more practical clinical work, which has included hand hygiene and documenting health history.
“It’s one thing to just go through a list when you’re working on someone’s health history, it’s another to actually have a connection where that trust it built and they’re willing to disclose this medical information,” says Sherwin. “Here, we’re working in a natural setting and we’re not just going through a list. The seniors we’re working with can go at their own pace.”
“Learning to communicate with older adults and having those positive connections has been helpful and is going to be important when we work as nurses,” adds Danielle Zelt, another nursing student with the Virginia Park group. “This whole experience has been about taking what we learn in textbooks and applying it to real life.”
Though Toogood and Shivji aren’t sure just yet which way their nursing careers are going to take them, both see the value in the practices that help seniors live with a better quality of life and are seeing their interests grow in seniors health. They both credit this growing interest to their work at Kiwanis Place.
“I have a new love for doing puzzles,” Shivji says with a laugh. “Working directly with people like this is a lot more fun than sitting through a lecture”