Heartwarming study aims to change your mind about aged care

Researchers from the Queensland University of Technology have taken an inside look at life in an aged care facility. Source: Inside Aged Care/ QUT

Aged care is something many of us fear.

After all, it’s natural to fear ageing, death and losing some of your independence. But is there actually anything to fear?

A group of researchers have  undertaken a three-year study into the lives of residents of one Queensland aged care facility in a hope to gain an understanding of life in aged care and break down some of the negative stigma.

The Queensland University of Technology study followed the lives of residents of Ballycara in Scarborough, north of Brisbane.

What it revealed, through the eyes  of the residents will make you smile, laugh and cry – it truly is a heartwarming look at life in aged care.

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When many of us think of aged care we think of very old people in beds, wheelchairs and walkers. Some of us think of a sterile, quiet, hospital like environment with little activity.

But what the study found was that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The study has culminated in an exhibition at the State Library of Queensland this month titled Living in Aged Care: A photographic exhibition of laughter, loss and leisure.

One of the heartwarming photographs and stories from the QUT study. Source: Inside Aged Care/QUT
One of the heartwarming photographs and stories from the QUT study. Source: Inside Aged Care/QUT

 

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QUT Associate Professor Evonne Miller, who headed up the study, said the team wanted to use engaging information and photography to counter people’s fears about aged care.

“We are an ageing population, and we need to think about and talk about – much more – the reality of ageing, old age and aged care,” she explained.

“Aged care is permanent, irreversible; there is little chance of return – the transition is a deeply personal and life changing event which can impact significantly on residents physical, emotional and social experiences of life.

“While most older residents feared entry to aged care, once there, most enjoyed the experience – the sense of safety from having “somebody caring for me, for a change”, and having people around to talk with and not doing any cooking or housework anymore.”

According to statistics, 6.5% of over 65s currently live in aged care. That’s 240,000 people and the number is increasing.

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As Miller explains, the lives of these people – our parents, our elderly relatives – are often invisible.

“Most people know very little about life in aged care; we wanted to share the lives and voices of aged care residents,” she said.  

“Thus, this exhibition provides rare and intimate insight into the often-private world of aged care.”

The residents and staff at Ballycara have a beautiful tribute for their friends who have passed on. Source: Inside Aged Care/ QUT
The residents and staff at Ballycara have a beautiful tribute for their friends who have passed on. Source: Inside Aged Care/ QUT

 

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The study involved interviews, surveys, observations, creative arts-based activities and workshops with more than 100 residents, aged care staff members and family and friends.

As Miller highlights, one of the most moving features of the study and exhibition is the photographs taken by the residents.

“As well as highlighting cherished interactions and activities with friends, family and staff (laughter and leisure), the photographs taken by residents, staff and the research team poignantly capture the changes,

challenges and resilience of older age ­ the increasing awareness of life’s fragility and resident’s experience of illness, dying and grief (loss),” she said.

“From the perspective of the residents, identity comes in all forms and nurturing it remains central in their lives. I think what is very clear in residents’ photographs and narratives is the importance of continued engagement with life – and an acknowledgment that this, aged care, is their last home.

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“It is where they are going to die. So, the onus is on all if us residents, their families and aged care staff, to do our best to make their last few days, weeks, months and years of life as positive, enjoyable and happy as possible.”

The photographs show the residents in their element.

Ballycara resident Pearl likes to sit at her desk and write short stories and poems. Source: Inside Aged Care/QUT
Ballycara resident Pearl likes to sit at her desk and write short stories and poems. Source: Inside Aged Care/QUT

 

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From Patrick, whose favourite day is “scrambled eggs Wednesday” and stashes BBQ sauce in his cupboard, to Pearl who writes letters and poetry at her desk, the photographs show that despite the communal environment of aged care, they still maintain individual interests and hobbies.

 For the researchers, the study also had an impact.

Miller said some of the things that stood out to her were the close relationships between the residents and staff.

“The importance of maintaining identity, and of taking pleasure  and joy in the small moments. Of choosing to be happy, and to make the most of each moment,” she said.

“It reminded me of the importance of our own choices, behaviours and attitudes – that we can chose how we approach old age and ageing and our attitude in many ways will determine our experience.

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“We need to age with passion, staying engaged with life – however we personally define that – to the very last moment.”

Ballycara resident Patrick keeps a stash of BBQ sauce in his cupboard. Source: Inside Aged Care/QUT
Ballycara resident Patrick keeps a stash of BBQ sauce in his cupboard. Source: Inside Aged Care/QUT

 

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 What’s the take home message of the study?

Well, in the words of 86-year-old Betty.

“You mustn’t think, ‘I’m getting old’ therefore I can’t do this or can’t do that. You just get on with it and live it, keeping your mind alert and alive. Be sensible and be honest with yourself about what you can and can’t do. But don’t ever feel sorry for yourself that you’re getting older, because what is there to be sorry about? If you live everyday of your life totally  and absolutely, it doesn’t matter that the life you are living now isn’t  quite as big as it was ten years ago. You are just filling that day because that’s all you’ve got ­ so use it well. This is now and this is today. Be grateful, whether you are 50, 60, 70 or 20, 30, 40 ­ you’re alive, girl”

Or in the words of 80-year-old Ethel:

You’re taken care of.

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I’m very satisfied

with my room.

I got me own furniture,

so why wouldn’t I be?

It’s just like my own home,

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only I don’t do no work

I got me friends here,

I go to bingo,

I join in exercises,

I go for any walks,

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I have a good family,

they take me places.

though I

haven’t been able

to find a nice man, yet.

 

How beautiful is this?! What do you think of the study? Is it different to your perception of life in aged care?