Friday, November 20, 2020

IIA’s Academic Elders act as patients so nursing students can learn real-life clinical assessment skills

The Academic Elder volunteers brought out the
life experiences, frailty and struggles of the
characters portrayed in the scenarios so
students could learn to see the person and
not just the illness or disease. As a result
of the volunteers, there was improvement
in students' verbal and non-verbal
communication, fostering a positive and
effective nurse-client relationship.
By Lorraine Glowczak

Officially established a little over one year ago, the Institute for Integrative Aging (IIA) at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine (SJCME) seeks to address loneliness and isolation experienced by many older adults by offering a variety of intergenerational activities. Programs such as Silver Sneakers®, online Coffee and Conversations, a hiking program, a book club and much more have been and continue to be successful. The recent launch of the Academic Elder Volunteer Program was implemented for the first time this fall with nursing students and also proved to be a success.

“We had four amazing Academic Elder volunteers who virtually joined Professor Nancy Bonard’s Nursing Fundamentals Course, acting as ‘standardized patients’ IIA Director Heather DiYenno said. “This opportunity allowed the nursing students to practice their clinical assessment skills along with general communication and interviewing techniques in a simulated environment.”

DiYenno and Bonard have been collaborating on several projects that support both the nursing program at SJCME and IIA. Due to the restrictions from the COVID pandemic, the Academic Elder Volunteer Program filled a gap in hands-on learning.    

“The nursing program’s clinical sites for long-term care have been part of the curriculum, working directly with patients at long-term care facilities,” Bonard said. “However, this semester, the nursing students were not able to visit the facilities due to the risk of coronavirus transmission.”

Learning how to communicate effectively with the patient and create a therapeutic nurse-patient relationship would not have been fulfilled if not for the help of the Academic Elders.

“While there are ample opportunities for practicing skills on mannequins [such as bathing and transferring clients], there was a need for students to be able to practice therapeutic communication skills,” Bonard said. “The discussions included many important themes for nursing care, such as caregiving, the unique needs of older adults, transitions of care, and holistic care of clients.”

“At the conclusion of the four-week period, both volunteers and faculty noted that there was improvement in students’ verbal and non-verbal therapeutic communication, fostering a positive and
effective nurse-client relationship,” DiYenno said.

Although the students were not available for an interview, they expressed to both DiYenno and Bonard that they were grateful to talk with a real person, being able to ask better questions that included feedback as a result. This included proper and effective ways of communication – knowing what to say and what not to say to a patient. They also said this portion of the experience was one of the favorite parts of their clinicals.

The Academic Elder volunteers, who had heard about this opportunity through email communications with IIA, share some of their own experiences. Lyman and Darnell Stuart were two of those volunteers.

“Meeting with Nancy and Heather was all that it took to see what a wonderful experience this would be for their students,” Lyman Stuart said. “I love helping anyone further their education in whatever they may be learning, and I found this to be unique.”

Darnell Stuart, who is very engaged in theater, was looking for ways to be involved now that theaters are closed. Having had many years of work experience in senior health care, Darnell believed she was able to contribute to the students’ learning. But she also learned something as a volunteer.

“I was reminded of the term, ‘youth is wasted on the young.’ This is not so true - it is not wasted. It is they who keep us young if we allow them to grow.”

A third volunteer, Donna Leitner decided to be an Academic Elder because she had many positive mentors throughout her educational and professional career and thought this would be an opportunity to “pay it forward."

“I’m hoping my involvement afforded students a ‘live elder’ (albeit by videoconference) to practice
communication and assessment skills,” Leitner said. “Most importantly, I feel I brought out the life experiences, frailty and struggles of the characters portrayed in the scenarios so students could learn to see the person and not just the illness or disease.” 

“Watching their growth caused me to ‘up my game’ in portraying the character as realistically as possible,” she said. “In some instances, I had to do research on the character’s illness or the formal medical assessment scales/tools that might be utilized in their questioning.”

There may be more opportunities for both older adults and students next semester.

“Nancy’s class will continue with a different curriculum and there is a possibility to work with them again this spring,” DiYenno said. “Due to limitations of clinical placement, these students would have otherwise lost a whole year of clinicals without the help of the volunteers.”

IIA is also having discussions with other departments at the college including Social Work and Communications about other Academic Elder opportunities. And it seems from the positive feedback from the first set of volunteers, IIA and the professors will not have to look far for more Academic Elders.

“Their enthusiasm is infectious,” Lyman Stuart said. “I am already looking forward to the spring
semester when we can do this again.”

For other older adults who may be thinking about volunteering their time as an Academic Elder, Darnell Stuart has this to say:

“I do hope more people get involved. The students deserve what each of us can give them and we deserve the joy of helping them grow.”

For more information on the Academic Elder Volunteer program, contact Heather DiYenno at the Institute of Integrative Aging by email at or by phone at 207-893-7641.<

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