This article originally appeared in the January 2020 edition of Senior Scope. Article and photos by Seth Thomas.
During the fall semester, students enrolled in Bristol Community College’s occupational therapy assistant program were given a unique opportunity to apply the skills they had been learning in the classroom out in the community. The new program, which happened through a partnership between BCC and Coastline, gave students the opportunity to work one-on-one with a client living with dementia.
For the past year, Coastline has operated a volunteer-driven program called Caregiver Companion and Support Services, which is funded through the Massachusetts Council on Aging. The program pairs trained volunteers with those living with memory loss to provide them with socialization and companionship. Volunteer companions also provide caregivers with temporary respite.
Coastline and BCC worked together to tailor the program to the college’s accredited occupational therapy assistant program. Nineteen students took part in the new class.
“These are third-semester students,” said Johanna Duponte-Williams, the Occupational Therapy Assistant Program Director at BCC. “They’ve been taught the basics, but they needed to apply their knowledge and their skills – and they needed to be able to think on their feet.”
Occupational therapists often work with people with disabilities or injuries to overcome barriers. They assess clients and, drawing from a wide knowledge base, help them find ways to better execute activities of daily living. Ultimately, their goal is to make daily activities easier or less painful for clients.
“It’s an art and a science to be an occupational therapy practitioner,” said Constance Messier, an Associate Professor in the program.
Coastline’s Patricia Geggatt-Midurski, who operates the Caregiver Companion program, met with students and consumers to try to match people with similar interests. Both first-year and second-year students were also given extensive dementia training, which made them more aware of the ways that memory loss impacts daily activities – as well as the ways it impacts caregivers and family members.
The students visited their client for two hours a week for a total of eight weeks. The overall objective was for students to develop interventions for their client by engaging them with a recreational pursuit. While the students had previously worked with clients in a group setting, the course was their first, formal one-on-one encounter with a client.
“We implemented healing strategies through leisure activities,” said Ryan Lauriano, a BCC student who was enrolled in the new program.
“My client had arthritis. One of my goals was to try to reduce the issues he was having,” he explained. “He was already on a medication routine to help with arthritis. But, by working on fine motor skills through activities like painting and sanding, you saw the improvement happen.”
Students were responsible for an initial assessment, where they had to determine their client’s interests. Then they had to develop a plan, which had to be adjusted for difficulty depending on the needs of the client. Students would gather in a classroom setting to discuss their notes, successes and failures.
“We had a debrief session. They would share what went well or what didn’t work,” said Messier. “That’s what we found beneficial – the stories.”
Maryanne Eck, an academic fieldwork coordinator at BCC, said these classroom discussions provided the students a chance to bounce ideas off each other and with faculty. They could also use the discussions to report any safety concerns, like whether their client was at risk for falling.
BCC student Haley Yerid said she and her client played games and worked together to complete crafts, which could pose a challenge because her client had macular degeneration (or vision loss).
Yerid taught the client to turn her head from side to side to broaden her field of vision or to use her hands to feel the object before she applied glue or paint. By the fourth or fifth session, Yerid said, her client began using those adaptive strategies on her own accord.
“You’d be surprised how mentally rewarding that is for somebody,” said Yerid. “You see their face light up when they complete a project they haven’t done in twenty years.”
On Dec. 12, the occupational therapy assistant students gathered at BCC’s Purchase Street location for a final presentation, where they discussed their experiences with their clients and their opinions of the pilot program.
Many of the students expressed how nervous they were receiving an assignment that revolved around independent work. But the students said the course improved their note-taking skills and made them more adaptable to clients’ needs, which are essential skills in their field.
“It was scary going out of my comfort zone, but it was also good to come out of my comfort zone,” said student Brittney Tripp during her final presentation. She also recommended that the program should continue in future semesters.
“I knew that caregivers need time for themselves to be able to continue care for their loved ones,” she said. “I didn’t realize how important it really is.”
Duponte-Williams said the college will evaluate the efficacy of the pilot program and explore the possibility of continuing the experience in future semesters. The professors agreed that their students took on the new project with great aplomb.
“They went above and beyond,” said Messier. “They put a lot of energy into designing specific interventions. Many of the students made connections with the clients. We were really happy to see that.”
Ultimately, the majority of students said they would love to continue meeting with their clients on a volunteer basis, but the reality of college life – which often requires students to juggle class time with homework, long-term assignments, part-time jobs, and home life – leaves them with little time for volunteering.
If you would like to learn more about the program and become a volunteer, call Coastline and ask about the Caregiver Companion and Support Services program. Much like the students featured in this article, you will receive training and support.
You can reach Patricia Geggatt-Midurski directly by calling 508-742-9116 or 774-510-0174 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.