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Lab accelerates aging process for understanding

By Heather Hughes, Western News

Lauren Anstey, from left, eLearning and Curriculum Specialist at the Teaching Support Centre, Stephanie Oliver, Program Assistant for Western Active Learning Space, and Michelle Persyn, third-year Health Sciences student, try to build a bridge based on audio instructions while experiencing limited dexterity and hearing impairment as part of a hearing loss simulation in the Evoking Empathy Lab.

Photo by: Heather Hughes

Lauren Anstey, from left, eLearning and Curriculum Specialist at the Teaching Support Centre, Stephanie Oliver, Program Assistant for Western Active Learning Space, and Michelle Persyn, third-year Health Sciences student, try to build a bridge based on audio instructions while experiencing limited dexterity and hearing impairment as part of a hearing loss simulation in the Evoking Empathy Lab.

School of Health Studies professor Aleksandra Zecevic decided to take a risk with her Aging Body course. In order to realize the impact of the physiological changes of aging, she challenged her third-year students to create a mobile simulation lab.

The students demonstrated their work on the Evoking Empathy Lab at March Break Open House and during a showcase for university and community partners on March 24.

“We wanted to simulate what aging feels like so we can develop empathy or better understanding and better emotional alignment with those who are experiencing the aging changes,” she said. “Why look at old people as slow, stinky, undesirable? Because if you understand them, you will cater to their capacities and their needs.

“The ultimate goal is to reduce ageism.”

By 2025, about one quarter of the Canadian population will be over the age of 65, Zecevic said. An aging population will create new opportunities and challenges for those working in health-care fields, as well as those caring for the elderly. In order to properly support seniors and enable them to continue a high quality of life, Zecevic noted shifting perspectives of aging can make great strides in producing empathy and creating innovative accommodations to support seniors.

Using an engaged-learning model, Zecevic ditched the traditional lecture-based class and empowered her students to participate in the evolution of the course, including teaching each other and creating inventive ways to reinforce what they were reading in textbooks or discussed in class.

Separated into teams, the students created something that simulated what an older person experiences in later life related to the bodily system they were learning about.

The mobile lab includes nine stations that transform a collection of household items, such as tape, gloves, elastic bands, straws and goggles, into a simulation of the aging body to evoke empathy amongst family, caregivers and health-care professionals. Zecevic also teaches a fourth-year service-learning course on Gerontology in Practice, which she hopes will be able to further explore applications of this lab.

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Photo by: Heather Hughes

Participants of the mobile lab are given a passport with an identity of senior citizen with multiple health conditions. In order to help lab participants embody a senior, students applied tape to hand joints, for example, to simulate the limited dexterity of a person with arthritis. Some participants were given an audio recording with instructions on how to build a bridge with LEGO blocks. The catch was using a child’s voice to provide the instructions, which simulates the difficulty in hearing high-frequency sounds commonly associated with hearing loss. The lab also included simulations for dementia, Parkinson’s disease, tendonitis, mobility and flexibility issues, loss of muscle mass, urinary incontinence and shortness of breath, among other conditions.

The students received funding from the Student Opportunity Fund from the Faculty of Health Sciences Students’ Council to purchase supplies for the lab.

“This was such a powerful teaching and learning experience,” Zecevic said.

As evidence, Zecevic relayed a story about a mother who participated in the Parkinson’s disease simulation during March Break Open House. She said she had a greater understanding of what it was like for her father who lived with the disease.

The simulation lab also provokes participants to examine their own health choices and challenges them to make lifestyle changes to reduce the affects of aging.

“There are a lot of things that change over time and there are a lot of things you can or cannot do in later life,” Zecevic explained. “I think there will be a great need for a lot of alternative ways of thinking and acting (towards seniors).”

Stacey Sutton, senior co-ordinator of London’s Participation House, which supports individuals with developmental and/or complex physical needs, saw a direct application for the mobile lab in teaching the next generation of support workers. “We are experiencing a devaluing of the aging population,” said Sutton, who has partnered with Zecevic on the Gerontology in Practice course.

“There is a difference between giving someone knowledge and giving someone understanding,” noted Alice Leys, a third-year Health Sciences student, adding the simulation lab can be useful for training doctors and health-care providers.

In spite of standing on the other end of the aging spectrum, a third-year Health Sciences student Edward Peprah said he has a better understanding and is more empathetic towards the elderly as a result of this lab. “You really don’t know until you actually feel it,” he said.

Zecevic is excited about the success of the experimental course and the potential applications for the mobile lab. “This is a seed; we will see how big this tree will grow,” she said.

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Photo by: Heather Hughes