It’s like mental aerobics

Co-ops reimagine work to boost cognitive abilities of older adults


""We are curious and advance new ideas and ways of knowing. We work together to expand our knowledge, developing impactful solutions that maximize our reach for a healthier future. - From the Faculty’s Strategic Plan 2020-25

Here’s how two co-op students are living this value:

When Kinesiology students Jenny Huynh (pictured above) and Melissa Li committed to a summer co-op at Wing Kei Care Centre in Calgary, Alberta, they expected to work directly with older adults to improve health outcomes. However, COVID-19 struck before the co-ops began, which meant they had to rethink what their placements would look like from home.

“It was incredibly disappointing not to have the chance to get to know the residents and community in person,” says Huynh, “but Melissa and I devised a plan for making the co-op work virtually.”

They combined forces to develop visual and word games that challenge older adults at different cognitive levels, including those living with dementia. “It’s like mental aerobics,” explains Huynh. “We’re directly applying what we learned in our neuroscience classes at Waterloo.”

Huynh has always enjoyed helping people improve their health through movement, going back to her days as a competitive taekwondo instructor, but she had never applied her skills in the context of a long-term care facility.

“I was really looking forward to working with seniors in a research capacity,” she says. None of her previous co-op experiences had included a strong research component, so she had planned to hone an entirely new set of skills through developing a toolkit of physical and mental wellness exercises for senior residents and their caregivers.

Like Huynh, Li was attracted to the hands-on experience a co-op at Wing Kei would provide. “It seemed like the best of both worlds,” she says. “I identified a new opportunity to conduct research in a professional setting that I had never experienced. Wing Kei is a highly respected organization, and I was excited to join a team that truly cares for the residents it serves.” For her co-op, she had planned to research online resources and games to enhance cognitive skills in Wing Kei residents.

Reimagining work

Determined to make a contribution despite the new constraints, they worked with their supervisors to reimagine their role at Wing Kei. “It’s hard to replace face-to-face interaction, but through constant communication with the Wing Kei community, we’ve still managed to interact with the residents in impactful ways,” Huynh says.

Melissa Li with laptop and UWaterloo calendar.The two students have developed a variety of recreational activities that provide mental stimulation for Wing-Kei residents. “We are busy coming up with creative ways to help seniors boost their cognitive abilities,” says Li (pictured).

In addition to creating new games, Li and Huynh have developed a repository of existing online games, videos and websites that improve health outcomes in a recreational setting. “Despite the challenge of not being able to physically engage with the residents, we’re constantly receiving feedback and making adjustments to our projects accordingly,” says Li.

“We have received overwhelmingly positive responses about how much residents are enjoying the activities, which is critical to engaging them at a level that actually improves their cognitive abilities.”

More support than ever

As they reflect on their months serving at Wing Kei, Jenny and Melissa express gratitude for the unexpected ways they have been able to make a difference in the lives of the residents. “At the end of the day, knowing that the older adult population needs more support than ever has made our work more meaningful,” Melissa reflects. “Even working from home, it has been rewarding to be able to help vulnerable people at a crucial time.”

How can co-op students help at your workplace? Please contact Sherri Sutherland if you are interested in learning more about hiring Waterloo co-op students and participating in the Hire AHS Challenge.