Seniors teach lessons from lives

The Herald-Sun/Kevin Seifert

Robert Warren, 72, (right) talks with UNC nursing student Tammy Benjamin during a reminiscence therapy session at the senior center. Warren talked about his childhood, spinal cord injury and philosophical beliefs.

By JOY BUCHANAN : The Herald-Sun
Feb 5, 2002 : 10:02 pm ET

CHAPEL HILL -- For the past month, Chapel Hill seniors have had the opportunity to share their life stories with nursing students from the UNC School of Nursing as part of a therapeutic communication program.

The students began the program at the Chapel Hill Senior Center on Jan. 7, and it has continued for five consecutive Fridays. The last session will be Friday.

"[The seniors] share a lot of their insight and wisdom with us," said Kathy Prussia, a nursing student. "They use it to teach those of us in the program."

For seniors, recalling the past is a beneficial mental exercise. Theresa Raphael-Grimm of the School of Nursing said the students focus on helping seniors remember how they dealt with difficult times, or how they coped with change.

"Reminiscing is very therapeutic," Raphael-Grimm said. It also helps "remind the elders of their strengths," she said.

At first, the nursing students only had three seniors volunteer to participate in the program. On the first day, the students made a sign saying "Tell Your Story" and sat in the senior center lobby trying to interest people.

"Once people saw them and saw what the program was about, people came out of the woodwork," Raphael-Grimm said. Soon, the students had more volunteers than they could interview.

In the program, seniors are able to talk one-on-one with a student. The objective is to establish communication, to help seniors reminisce and to help students become familiar with people's various experiences.

For confidentiality reasons, the students do not record or videotape the sessions. Seniors can request that the students take notes and record the interviews. The student would give the notes from a session to the senior. If seniors want to tape their history, they must provide their own tape and recorder.

Robert Warren, 72, of Chapel Hill said the opportunity to share his life story with a student was very interesting. Warren said it was important "to see the threads in our lives and bring them all together."

"I love it," Kazimierz "Charlie" Miskow, 62, said about the program. "I get so excited I forget most of the stuff!"

Miskow opted to have his story written down. Ashley Cowart, a nursing student, took notes for him.

"A lot of people told me I should write some kind of book," Miskow said.

The seniors weren't the only ones who benefited from the opportunity to share their stories.

"They thought their lives weren't exciting," said nursing student Sherry Dumas. "[But] they can tell you what it was like to live through some things that we can only read about."

"Reminiscing therapy is beneficial for them," student Tammy Benjamin said. "It makes them think about good things and bad things; things that are happy and sad. It's really good for them."

Besides helping the seniors, the students say the experience will be valuable when they become nurses. Nursing student Kevin Coleman said the program will give him the skills he needs to interact with anyone, not just seniors. Prussia said the things she learned can be applied to many other aspects of nursing.

Nursing students in Raphael-Grimm's psychiatry and mental health course do 18 hours a week of field work, mostly with veteran nurses. But Raphael-Grimm wanted to broaden the students' experiences with this project.

"The natural thing to do seemed to be joining people across generations to help them better understand each other," Raphael-Grimm said.

Talking about life events with seniors helps a person understand how those events influence senior health issues.

The nursing students, many of whom already have bachelor's degrees, are in an accelerated program. Instead of the traditional two years, they will earn their Bachelor of Science degrees in nursing in just 14 months.

The program will likely not be offered again until next January. But, depending on its success, the School of Nursing may consider expanding it.

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