Hannah Topp is living every uni students “dream”.
She pays no rent, never has to worry about noisy flatmates or waking up to somebody having used all the milk. However, on the downside she never knows if her ‘neighbours’ will remember her and she has had to attend more funerals in the past two years than she has in her lifetime.
Hannah, 25, lives in a nursing home and is taking part in an Australian-first program offering free accommodation for students in return for volunteering with the residents.
For just 30 hours each month, Hannah is one of four young allied health students from the University of Sydney taking part in the Gold Soul Companion program at the Scalabrini Catholic Nursing Home in Bexley.
The students listen to music with the residents, do gentle exercise, go for a coffee or just sit and hold hands. The activities are not structured to allow for spontaneity.
Established in 2018 by Pastoral Care Coordinator Sr Maria Elena Figueroa, the inter-generational program was introduced to improve the isolation and depression faced by many ageing Australians. Social connectedness is well-regarded as a key determinant of health.
Latest research has shown that loneliness has a very real effect on physical and mental wellness. It can have similar health impacts to obesity, alcoholism and smoking. And it’s not just those living alone who feel isolated, seniors who live in residential care often report feeling lonelier than those in the community.
Hannah said sometimes all it takes is for her to sit, listen and hold a resident’s hand for them to feel connected, valued and happy. One of her favourite ‘tasks’ is sitting with a resident during daily rosary or attending Mass in the village’s chapel.
The physiotherapy student said hailing from Toowoomba in Queensland, means that, like many of the residents, she can feel very alone as her family and friends are just not able to visit. “Living here is like having a hundred grandparents, it really is like a dream,” she beamed.
“But no matter what age you are, being away from family can get lonely and I see that every day. Some of the residents don’t get any visitors which is heartbreaking.
“People my age are pretty surprised when I tell them I live in a nursing home, and also think it’s pretty cool.
“When I first moved in I thought 30 hours a month would be pretty simple but it is so much more than that. I have developed such strong bonds with lots of the residents and it really will be quite painful to leave at the end of the year.”
Aside from the friendships, Hannah said she has also had to come to terms with death.
She said walking into a recently vacated room can be very confronting. “I have seen so many people pass away since I have been here and every one really does hurt,” she said.
“They can be perfectly happy one day and gone the next.
“One lady that I’ll never forget was 83-year-old Maria who passed away a few months ago. Not only did I get close to her but also her family, and in the end I felt like one of them. From the moment I arrived we had an instant connection. She didn’t speak much English so we would sit listening to music and holding hands.
“It mightn’t sound like much but her family would tell me she would ask for me all the time and her face would light up whenever I walked into the room. Losing her really was difficult and made me realise what a valuable contribution we are making.”
Just looking at the beaming residents when the young volunteer walks into the room shows the huge impact she has on them. One in particular is Neville ‘the devil’ Tucker who sings the praises of the not-so-senior resident.
At just 91 years young, he said spending time with Hannah is an absolute joy and keeps him young.
After losing the love of his life – wife Beryl almost 30 years ago – he said he had spent many, many years alone … up until now.
“She’s not a bad kid and almost as cheeky as I am,” he winked. “I’m a pretty good looking fella so I reckon she’s a bit lucky as well. We’ve become great mates and someone I can talk to when I need it and she can do the same with me.
“She keeps me up-to-date with all the latest technology and is going to teach me how to text so I can keep in touch when she moves out at the end of the year,” she said. “I will miss her terribly when she leaves but don’t tell her I said that.”
Scalabrini Bexley’s Wellbeing Coordinator Tracey Gill said the program has been an outstanding success and they are now recruiting for a new group of students for 2020.
She said they had received calls from nursing homes around the country interested in introducing the program.
“The students get free accommodation and meals but what we get in return really is priceless,” she said.
“If a nursing home has the space they should do it, it has been incredible not only for the residents, but their families, the staff and the volunteers themselves.
“And I think the students were a little surprised at how much they have enjoyed being here as well … When the girls walk in you can feel such a change in the place, it’s just incredible.
“Being able to form meaningful relationships with a young person has made such a difference in the lives of so many of the residents.
“And not only have the residents learnt a thing or two from our young volunteers – they have also taught them a lot as well.
“I don’t think any of us will be the same – there have been some tears but also so many laughs and I can’t imagine what the place will be like without them.”
If you or someone you know is interested in applying for the program contact Tracey Gill at Scalabrini Bexley on 9597 1333.