Community connections

Innovative nursing program pairs students with older adults

November 21, 2011

By Diane Hageman

Their faces just beamed when she walked in the door.  Norman and Julia Blasius of Richmond, Minn., were so happy to see their favorite nursing student, senior Katy Torchia from the College of Saint Benedict. They couldn't wait to get the latest update on Torchia's races as a member of the CSB cross country team.

Torchia and the Blasius' have been paired together for a year, thanks to an innovative program through the nursing department called "Distinction in the Major - Gerontology." It is believed to be the only program of its kind in the state.

The main goal of the program is to provide extended clinical time for nursing students to learn about real-life experiences of aging directly from older adults. While Torchia doesn't provide hands-on health care, she does conduct research on health-related questions that the Blasius' may have.  She has helped them to develop a family tree of health patterns and conducted a home safety assessment.

Time together benefits students, older adults

Yet, the biggest benefit that both the Blasius' and Torchia see is the socialization aspect.  

"I felt real at home with her right away," Norman said. "It's really meant a lot to have her company. She likes to hang around with us and it makes a big difference."

"We're grateful to have the time with her," Julia echoed.

Norman, who worked for Cold Spring Granite for 42 years, suffered a stroke a few years back and Julia has had a hip replaced so they don't go "out and about" on their own very often. Torchia has taken them on several field trips including attending Mass at Saint Benedict's Monastery followed by brunch at the Gorecki Dining and Conference Center at CSB as well as a visit to the woodshop at Saint John's Abbey. 

"They really liked being around the younger people at brunch and since woodworking has been Norman's hobby, he absolutely loved the tour of the woodshop," Torchia shared.

When Torchia does spend time with the Blasius' at their home, they catch up on each other's lives. They also talk about any health issues they're experiencing and then plan activities they'd like to do. For Torchia, it's a way to observe how they interact and the caregiving that goes on between them.

"It's been important for me to see how a change in one person's life can really affect the other partner," said Torchia, who is a native of Rochester, Minn. "I see how they've adapted and made changes."

Nursing faculty create program

The program is the brainchild of nursing faculty members Denise Meijer and Kathy Twohy, who both received the Outstanding Faculty Learning About Geriatrics (FLAG) Award in 2010 from the Minnesota Hartford Center of Geriatric Nursing Excellence at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing for their efforts with the program.

It was developed in response to a growing need to provide opportunities for nursing majors to be involved with older adults. The program started with an inaugural group of four students, including Torchia, during the 2010-11 academic year.  Students who are in their junior year are paired with a senior couple living in a community setting. 

Another group of three students has started this year. The experience lasts for two academic years and the students receive up to four credits each semester for the clinical experience. They report back to their professors on their experiences with their clients through written reflections and monthly meetings.

In addition, they are required to write a thesis with a focus on gerontological research. Torchia's group is working on a project through the St. Cloud Veteran Affairs Medical Center. They will be analyzing data on 400 veterans and comparing health/illness patterns between those vets who live in the community versus those who live in a care facility.

Once the students complete the four semesters of clinical experience and write the thesis, they will graduate with a "Distinction in the Major - Gerontology."

For Twohy and Meijer, developing the program has been very gratifying.

"It's really been fun to work on something new and different," Twony noted. "I really enjoy teaching about the research process."

Meijer remarked that they have generally been pleased with the development of the program and are making a few adjustments as they move forward.

"With our aging society, there is a definite need for nursing students who are interested in gerontology. We think it's important for our students to see older adults living in their own homes," Meijer said.

One challenge has been finding clients and they are hoping that their existing clients are willing to continue with the program and work with new students.

Certainly the first year can be deemed a success. As Torchia leaves the Blasius' home, hugs are shared and plans are made for the next visit.