Young volunteer with an older adult at a nursing home

Baycrest’s unique volunteer visit program could preserve thinking skills for dementia patients living in long-term care

L-R: Dr. Nicole Anderson, a clinical neuropsychologist and senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute; Dr. Sid Feldman, Baycrest’s Executive Medical Director of Residential Programs and Chief of Family and Community Medicine; Janis Sternhill, Baycrest’s Volunteer Services Director

L-R: Dr. Nicole Anderson, a clinical neuropsychologist and senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute; Dr. Sid Feldman, Baycrest’s Executive Medical Director of Residential Programs and Chief of Family and Community Medicine; Janis Sternhill, Baycrest’s Volunteer Services Director

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Baycrest scientists and clinicians are teaming up with long-term care homes across Toronto to explore how volunteer visits could help older adults with dementia preserve or improve their thinking abilities.

This work could help long-term care homes incorporate a cost-effective program to improve care for residents with dementia and create new roles for volunteers working with older adults.

“Recent evidence demonstrates that we can stimulate, maintain and even improve the thinking and memory skills of people with dementia, which can help slow down the disease and have beneficial effects on quality of life,” says Dr. Nicole Anderson, a clinical neuropsychologist, senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute and associate professor at the University of Toronto’s psychology and psychiatry departments. “Unfortunately, practical methods to provide mass access to such programming have not kept pace with the research.”

According to Intellihealth Ontario, more than half of long-term care home residents in Ontario have dementia. Impairments to residents’ thinking abilities impact their overall health and quality of life.

This work builds upon Dr. Anderson’s pilot study where participants saw improvements in their ability to come up with words and learn verbally.

Participants at Baycrest, Meighen Manor and the Rekai Centres at Sherbourne Place and Wellesley Central Place will receive friendly visits from youth volunteers (aged 18 to 25) for 20-minute sessions, three times a week over three months. Volunteers will chat with care home residents and engage with them through activities meant to stimulate their thinking abilities. Through this research, practical “kits” could be developed to help long-term care communities with limited resources deliver this unique program.

“We are hoping that those residents who participate in this study will experience a higher sense of social engagement and improved communication, two critical aspects of quality of life for long-term care residents. As a result, we may see reduced rates of responsive behaviours, such as verbal and physical aggression, and improved mood in residents participating in this study,” says Dr. Sid Feldman, Baycrest’s Executive Medical Director of Residential Programs and Chief of Family and Community Medicine.

“Youth volunteers who participate in this program will be in the position to cultivate a relationship with residents in long-term care homes and develop an understanding of aging, dementia and personhood,” says Janis Sternhill, Baycrest’s Volunteer Services Director. “If these youth decide to pursue a career in geriatric medicine or a health profession caring for older adults, this experience will offer the opportunity to gain an appreciation of the aging process, which is essential for all healthcare professionals.”

Participants will share their opinions and have their thinking abilities tested through questionnaires and paper and pencil tests, before the first volunteer visit and after the last volunteer visit. These same tests will be conducted three months after the volunteer visits have been completed.

This work relates to Dr. Anderson’s previous research exploring the benefits for older adults who volunteer. Dr. Anderson specializes in brain rehabilitation research with older adults.

Other collaborators on the study include Baycrest’s Chief of Medicine, Dr. Gary Naglie, Baycrest’s Head of Program Evaluation, Dr. Jurgis Karuza, Research Coordinator, Anna Berall, and former graduate student, Lorraine van Zon.

The research is supported by The Retired Teachers of Ontario/Les enseignantes et enseignants retraités de l’Ontario (RTO/EFO) Foundation, which contributed funds towards hiring staff and conducting the study.

Additional funding could assist with the creation and distribution of kits, which will include training modules for long-term care home staff and volunteers and paper-and-pencil activities. These kits will offer a cost-effective program to preserve the thinking abilities of long-term care home residents with dementia.  

Currently, the research team is recruiting youth volunteers (aged 18-25) and retired teachers to help with the study. Interested participants can email volunteer@baycrest.org or contact 416-785-2500 ext. 2572.

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