Virtual student placements offer recreation and support for the elderly

Joshua Grashorn
Bachelor of Health Science (Therapeutic Recreation) student, Joshua Grashorn. 

Western Sydney University is working in partnership with UNITING NSW.ACT, to offer virtual recreation therapy programs for some of our community’s most vulnerable people.

Dr Nicole Peel, from the University’s School of Health Sciences, said COVID-19 made it essential for many important community support services to be put on hold – and elderly people have been significantly impacted.

“When the country goes into lock-down, elderly people are suddenly cut-off from family, social networks and support services. Day trips and outings are cancelled; visits from family and friends are no longer possible; and in-home services are put on hold,” said Dr Peel.

“The elderly are already prone to social isolation and loneliness – so they feel it very heavily when their routine is altered, or their usual support systems are not available.”

Dr Peel is Academic Course Advisor for the University’s Bachelor of Health Science programs and is involved in organising the work placements that allow students to obtain hands-on experience in health settings.

She said, despite the real threat of COVID-19, the world didn’t stop – elderly people still need social connections, purpose and belonging, and students still need a way to fulfil the practical components of their course.

To find a solution for both problems, Dr Peel reached out to UNITING NSW.ACT and arranged virtual work placements for 25 Bachelor of Health Science (Therapeutic Recreation) students.

“Uniting were immediately interested, as they understand the important role of recreational therapy in improving elderly people’s physical, cognitive, emotional, and social functioning and improving their overall quality of life,” she said.

In the Therapeutic Recreation program, students learn how to create the structured recreational opportunities and wellness programs that are a core part of service delivery in the home care sector.

Maddison Hawkins, who completed a virtual work placement with UNITING NSW.ACT, said the process involved connecting with elderly clients virtually over ZOOM and getting to know their interests, strengths and goals.

She then created ‘Wellness Boxes’ for her clients which – depending on their individual interests – may have contained an iPad, candle making, painting or cooking kits, reading resources, or even books to help them learn a new language.

“Therapeutic Recreation is so interesting because every day is different and there is no limit to what you can do for your client,” said Maddison.

“It’s so helpful and vital, and literally anything is possible. If an elderly person wants to sky dive, we can provide a VR headset so they can have the experience of sky diving safely within their home.”

For Joshua Grashorn, the Uniting placement was personally as well as professionally rewarding.

“One of my clients was a woman in her nineties – she was feeling very separated from her family, and missing contact with people, so we worked together on a legacy journal,” said Joshua.

“Having social connections and a sense of purpose is really important for anyone’s wellbeing. I am proud to have had the opportunity to help people re-engage with society, and get them through this difficult time.”

The School of Health Sciences within Western Sydney University is planning to use insights from the UNITING NSW.ACT placements, to inform further placements and continue to assist community-based aged care organisations.


17 September 2020

Danielle Roddick, Senior Media Officer