A&S student group supports long-term care workers and seniors

August 20, 2020 by Sean McNeely - A&S News

A group of Arts & Science students and recent graduates have moved from academics to action to help support long-term care workers and seniors affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Seven students from Franco Taverna’s course in dementia that covers topics such as Alzheimer’s, aging and elder care created the Student Association for Geriatric Empowerment (SAGE) earlier this spring.

Co-founded by Rowaida Hussein, who just graduated with an honours bachelor of science with a double major in neuroscience and cell and molecular biology as a member of Trinity College, SAGE’s mission is to support front-line workers and elderly people during the COVID-19 crisis.

“As a former volunteer at a long-term care facility, I can't imagine how residents are feeling, I can't imagine how staff are feeling,” says Hussein. “We’re in a position right now as students to do something and help out, so why not?”

SAGE is currently working on four projects to help senior residents and staff during the ongoing pandemic, focusing, for now, on supporting three long-term care facilities in the GTA.

Its first initiative, the Community Care Project, led to partnering with businesses and restaurants to provide long-term care staff with coffee, baked goods, meals, energy drinks and self-care products.

The second project, Companion Calls, involves volunteer students reaching out to residents in senior homes to combat their isolation and loneliness.

Vanessa Rezai-Stevens.
Vanessa Rezai-Stevens is leading SAGE’s Companion Calls project, with volunteers reaching out to seniors through video calls.

Leading that project is Vanessa Rezai-Stevens who also graduated in June with an honours bachelor of science degree as a member of St. Michael’s College, majoring in neuroscience and minoring in immunology and forest conservation.

“These are video chats between student volunteers and residents,” says Rezai-Stevens, who is working at the O’Neill Centre for long-term care in Toronto this summer. “Even just a short conversation with a friendly person can make all the difference in their day.”

Upcoming projects include Encouragement Notes ― personal letters sent from volunteers to front-line workers expressing how much their efforts and commitment are appreciated.

“These are the people who have devoted their careers to caring for one of the most vulnerable populations, despite dangerous working conditions,” says Rezai-Stevens. “I saw firsthand how hard nursing and care staff were working to keep residents healthy and safe. They really deserve everyone’s utmost gratitude and appreciation.”

Later this summer SAGE also plans to unveil its Bloom Together gardening project, giving residents the chance to boost their emotional and mental well-being.

“Gardening is really helpful at nursing homes, it increases social engagement and the feeling of community,” says Hussein. “We thought, it's summer let's try and sponsor some tools, flowers and soil. We're getting packages together very soon."

Rowaida Hussein in front of a fountain in Amsterdam
Rowaida Hussein, co-founder of SAGE, in Amsterdam during a class trip to tour senior care facilities.

In addition to Taverna’s lectures and course materials, Hussein, Rezai-Stevens and other SAGE members were motivated to act after joining their professor on a class trip to Amsterdam to learn about new strategies and social innovations for caring for seniors in Europe.

“We visited long-term care facilities to see the kinds of social and structural systems that they have in place to enhance the quality of life for their elderly,” says Taverna, an associate professor, teaching stream, in the Faculty of Arts & Science’s human biology program. “That trip really inspired them to explore opportunities here. I’m very impressed with what they’ve been able to accomplish.”

“When I got to see and learn all those things for class, and then seeing how devastating this pandemic was to the long-term care sector, something clicked in my mind,” says Hussein. “I can't just sit there with all the knowledge that we've gained.”

SAGE is looking for more volunteers for all of their projects, and also encourages students to follow their activities on social media.

“The message that has come across the most to me from our efforts is, ‘thank you for thinking of us’, which tells me we haven't been doing enough as a community,” says Hussein. “It's really touching to hear but this means there’s more work to do.”