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Selkirk College Nursing Students Focus on Seniors’ Health Issues Amid Pandemic

Selkirk College Nursing Program students Christina Champlin (left) and Anjela Szabo (right) with some of the Increasing Recreation Involving Seniors’ walking group participants that include (middle L-R) Wade Woodman, Anne Ryback and Kate Varabioff. Prior to the current COVID-19 provincial restrictions, the two students started a walking group in Castlegar in the autumn that encouraged physical activity.

Helping reduce the crushing mental and physical toll the COVID-19 pandemic is having on seniors in the Castlegar area, a pair of Selkirk College Nursing Program students are shining a light on what is required moving forward for older adults in British Columbia.

Christina Champlin and Anjela Szabo completed a practicum this past fall with the Castlegar Community Response Network focused on the Increasing Recreation Involving Seniors (IRIS) project that aims to increase wellness for seniors in the area. The 23-year-old students analyzed data from a survey conducted this summer by their field guides to create a specially designed walking group and helped facilitate educational sessions with the objective of making a difference now and into the future.

“We identified the gaps in resources and needs during the pandemic, but in reality these gaps are almost always present and the pandemic has really just brought them to light,” says Champlin, who is now in the final semester of the four-year Bachelor of Nursing program based out of the Castlegar Campus. “A lot of this is related to COVID-19, but seniors are the most socially isolated population in general without a pandemic. It was eye-opening to have this opportunity to really explore their needs and how they are feeling. As we look into the future, these gaps are identified and now this work can continue to build into the coming months.”

Under program creator/coordinator Sandi McCreight, the IRIS program started in 2017 as part of the Castlegar Community Response Network. Today serving more than 170 older adults with twice-monthly deliveries, the program was created with the primary goal of good health and well-being for seniors, activities for body and brain, and proper nutrition.

Students in Selkirk College’s School of Health & Human Services have participated in a variety of practicums at IRIS over the years, but amidst a global pandemic the impact of the work has been heightened. Over the summer, 78 seniors in the Castlegar area participated in a survey where they answered a number of questions related to how COVID-19 has impacted their lives.

“Seniors are very interested and appreciative of being involved in creating, planning and carrying out programming designed for them. We need to speak with them directly to see what they want and what they need,” says McCreight, who is a Selkirk College Human Services Program alumna. “Having an inter-generational connection is one of our mandates. Having Christina and Angela making those phone calls and showing those seniors that they really care, that it comes from the heart and they really want to understand, it adds another level of respect and sharing in that process of research.”

Committed to the Care of Older Adults

Learners in the Nursing Program take part in several practicums over the course of the four-year program that is delivered in partnership with the University of Victoria. Champlin and Szabo both have a passion for seniors care and wellness, so having a chance to take part in relevant work with IRIS during a health care crisis was the right fit for their future goals.

“Their mental health has been so deeply impacted by this virus, many of the seniors that I have spoken with talk about this being the worst period of their lives,” says Szabo, a graduate of Castlegar’s Stanley Humphries Secondary. “Just having these conversations and providing the information, it helped take away some of the anxiety of the moment which was beneficial.”

As she moves towards the excitement of graduation this spring, Champlin says the opportunity to engage with seniors on such a meaningful level over the last few months has sparked additional zeal for her lifelong goal of a career that puts the care of others at the forefront.

“Seniors have so much knowledge and wisdom, it’s a pretty special demographic to work with,” says Champlin, a graduate of Nelson’s LV Rogers Secondary. “I wasn’t aware of my passion for working with seniors until I received this opportunity where I have been able to listen to needs and understand their perspectives.”

Since the completion of her first year, Szabo has worked part-time as a health care assistant in facilities around the Castlegar region. Accustomed to the environment and needs of older adults, Szabo’s experience of working with independent seniors in the community at this historic period of time has provided additional knowledge she will carry forward into her career.

“When I look back on this, what I will take away professionally is that we simply need to take more time with seniors,” she says. “Physical touch is so important and without it, people get scared. Simply holding a person’s hand is a gesture that goes a long way. I will continue to advocate for seniors and help implement change in the future.”

Making an Impact on Seniors’ Wellness

The survey helped produce tangible results with the walking group and information sessions the students helped put into action. Though in-person activities are limited under heightened provincial pandemic restrictions, Szabo and Champlin interviewed seniors over the phone to increase feelings of connection and community. The lighter biographical questions asked about first cars, first jobs, hobbies, pets, favourite colours and coping strategies are currently being shared in the monthly IRIS Connector newsletter.

Last semester, Champlin and Szabo joined their cohort for presentations on leadership projects that spanned the landscape of health care in the region. Their presentation was titled “Meeting Seniors Health and Wellness Needs During the COVID-19 Pandemic” and was well received by faculty and peers.

“Fostering inter-professional relationships that support senior health and well being is paramount to building and sustaining healthy, vibrant communities,” says Nursing Program Instructor Katrina Verschoor, the faculty advisor for Champlin and Szabo. “Selkirk College is committed to our students and all of our community members. We are committed to continuing to foster these relationships and engage students and faculty in creating innovative ways to achieve healthy outcomes for seniors. Individuals like Sandi [McCreight]are inspirational mentors and leaders who embody what it means to be responsive to the needs of our population and what each of us can do to contribute to population health.”

As British Columbia moves towards recovery and emerges out of the pandemic in the coming months, the questions raised during the crisis and the overall health of older adults in the province will continue to be analyzed and studied. As the students discovered, many of the questions arising over the last 12 months don’t come with simple answers.

“There were people in this survey that stated they were fearful of getting COVID and dying,” Champlin explains. “But what was the most prevalent is that they are unable to see their family, they are unable to see their friends, they are unable do the things they love, they are unable to hug their grandchildren. That is the hardest part. One participant told me they would rather die getting COVID than not be able to hug their grandchildren. It raises many tough questions.”

In partnership with the University of Victoria, all four years of the Selkirk College Nursing Program is delivered out of the Castlegar Campus. Upon completion of their studies, graduates receive a Bachelor of Nursing credential from the University of Victoria. Learn more about the program at: https://selkirk.ca/nursing.