Improving the health and wellbeing of older people
About this research pillar
Wellbeing across the lifespan is vital to both individuals and communities. Our research focuses on maximising wellness and resilience in older people to help them cope with life transitions and developing approaches to aid decision-making in people with cognitive decline.
Our research covers areas such as:
Engagement with life and wellbeing in older adulthood
Psychological treatment of cancer-related distress
Digital mental health in cancer
Our research in practice - The Wisdom Club
Sharing wisdom through a shared experience between primary school students and older people provides a vital cross-generational connection - and a program by Flinders University Institute for Mental Health and Wellbeing that explores this process is proving especially beneficial to older Australians.
The Wisdom Club is a pilot program funded by the Breakthrough Mental Health Research Foundation that had older volunteers helping students at Noarlunga Downs Primary School with fundamental learning tasks. While the program is designed to bring older and younger Australians closer together, the researchers are primarily interested in its positive effect on older people.
“It’s not just an exchange of knowledge, but a very important social exchange and communication bridge between generations,” says Flinders University’s Associate Professor Tim Windsor.
“It has been absolutely life-changing for me,” says 66-year-old Kate Hamilton, who volunteered for the duration of the Wisdom Club pilot program. “I really want to invest the energy I have in doing something useful, but at this age you start feeling rather invisible.”
Having worked as a midwife for 33 years and now engaged in part-time roles as a bus driver, hospitality worker and celebrant, Kate says that being able to work with young students gave her a heightened sense of purpose.
The Wisdom Club, designed by Associate Professor Windsor and PhD student Amy Harvey, has been inspired by a US initiative called Experience Corps but adapted to best suit South Australian cultural and primary school environments. Rather than focus on literacy skills, which was the initial focus of the US Experience Corps program, SA teachers instead asked the volunteers to help build numerical skills by playing maths-based board games with the young students.
“We wanted it to be flexible for our volunteers, so the pilot program only required a time commitment of one hour a week for six weeks,” explains Associate Professor Windsor.
“It’s especially important that the project focuses on positive intergenerational social interactions through shared learning opportunities without the need for modern technology and screen time.”
Positive feedback from the school indicates that it wants the program to continue – and the older volunteers agree.
“Having a portal where we can impart a bit of our wisdom and interact socially is so beneficial,” says Kate Hamilton. “Just by being able to reassure children who are struggling with some aspects of their learning, to provide support that will build their confidence in themselves – it feels like a worthwhile achievement.”
“Importantly, the Wisdom Club provides a safe space for both children and older adults to interact – a place where we can go and make a real difference,”
While the Wisdom Club project is designed primarily to benefit older people, there are multiple winners – with the young students benefitting from improved numeracy skills, and the school pleased to be building a stronger, more diverse and more cohesive community.
Kate also feels that being involved in the program provided her with significant health benefits. “It’s a good mental exercise to be doing maths-based games with the children. I have dyslexia and there is a history of Alzheimer’s Disease in my family, so I’m very conscious of keeping my mind agile. This proved very valuable.”
“Importantly, the Wisdom Club provides a safe space for both children and older adults to interact – a place where we can go and make a real difference,” says Kate.
Being involved was also fun for all the participants. The Wisdom Club motif bears the image of an owl, to signify wisdom, so Kate enjoyed wearing owl shaped earrings, which became an amusing talking point among the students. “We shared a lot of laughter,” she says. “We realised we were valued, that we can provide an important part of helping young people to navigate this difficult world – and it pleased us all greatly. We all enjoyed the fact that all the school staff and the students were so supportive of us.”
Dr Windsor says Flinders University researchers are now examining data from the Wisdom Club project and expect to release findings by the end of this year, with a view to establish a model so that a permanent scheme can be established for older volunteers in South Australian schools.
Interestingly, the Wisdom Club experience has prompted some of its senior participants to do more. “I’ve already offered to do more casual volunteering at the local school,” says Kate Hamilton. “I look forward to it so much. It has given me a real sense of purpose.”
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