Supporting veterans in long-term care

A photo of Lauren smiling.Lauren Mitchell (she/her), a third-year Faculty of Health student, talks about her co-op working at KW Habilitation and Sunnybrook Health Science Centre as well as the ups and downs that come along with co-op.

Lauren's co-op story

Lauren is currently studying in the Therapeutic Recreation program at the University of Waterloo, where she is also minoring in psychology. Lauren has completed two work terms so far and is currently in her third term.

“My first work term, I arranged my own job at KW Habilitation. A lot of organizations were not hiring students during the peak of the pandemic, because they were just trying to stay afloat. I was lucky enough to find a part-time job at a group home agency as a direct support worker.”

“I went into the homes of adults with developmental disabilities, and I would assist them with activities of daily living; things like bathing, making meals, but also a significant part of our role was helping facilitate virtual visits with family.”

“We played the role of companion, because family and friends weren't able to visit them due to the congregate living setting.”

Because Lauren’s first co-op term was a part-time role, she was also able to manage taking on a Linguistics course offered at UW.

“I'm thinking of pursuing speech-language pathology after my undergrad, linguistics is a prerequisite for that. It was a bit of a tricky course so, I'm glad I took it on its own.”

A photo of Lauren and her supervisors from her second co-op at the RCC.Then my second co-op term, I worked at Sunnybrook’s Reactivation Care Center (RCC). It's kind of like transitional care. So, people who are no longer requiring acute care, but they aren't ready to go home or they're waiting for long-term care admission, for example.”

“Most were seniors, I would say. But we also got some people who were post-surgery waiting to go to rehab. There were some younger folks, which was neat because I was exposed to a wide variety of things.”

“That was my first actual, recreation therapy position. We conducted assessments, group interventions, and a lot of one-on-one therapy. We use recreation as a modality to improve quality of life, promote cognitive stimulation, promote socialization, all sorts of interesting things like that.”

“This term, I am at Sunnybrook again, but I am on the main campus at the Veterans Centre. It's a long-term care home exclusively for veterans - most of them are World War 2 Veterans. But there are also some Korean War Veterans. They have the most amazing stories. I feel really lucky to work with the Veterans and give back to people who have done so much for our country.”

“The Veteran Center has a lot of great resources because Veterans Affairs and the local legions provide us with a lot of financial support. We have beautiful garden spaces, our own bus so we can take the Veterans out on trips across the city, ice-cream carts, art studios… it's a great facility and a great team. Everyone takes a lot of pride in what they do.”

What were some of the bigger projects you worked on?

“As COVID starts to settle down, we're able to take the Veterans out on trips. So, I'm involved in planning and facilitating the trips.”

“This term I’ve been able to help with a trip to Edward gardens, Mussleman lake, Sunnybrook Park, the CNE grounds, a Korean War memorial, and a visit to a local legion.”

“Another thing that comes to mind is an interprofessional project I’ve been working on with special diet textures. There was a speech-language pathologist who did her fellowship here, about a year ago and she created a recipe book for the recreation therapy team to use at our meal groups. Oftentimes, older people with dementia have trouble safely swallowing food. They get put on special diet textures to try and prevent them from choking.”

“She created the recipes to help us support social eating groups with different diet textures. Looking at her project, and practicing creating the recipes has allowed me to combine my interests of recreation therapy and speech-language pathology. It’s been great to have an opportunity at this job to see how my educational interests intersect.”

“We'll get to target some of the folks with more advanced dementia so that they still have the experience to attend our lunch group. I've been experimenting with the food processor and cooking foods because you must blend it and chop it up. That's a more long-term project that I've been working on.”

How were you able to manage part-time work and school together?

“It was pretty easy. It was nice because the course was fully virtual at that point. So, I was able to log on and do my course whenever I had the chance. It was nice to have some days where I was working and some days where I was doing school, it was a good balance."

“I was just happy to be employed and I learned a lot about working with adults and residential care. Part-time ended up being just fine. I liked my first co-op job so much I kept working there part-time there during my next school term and over the summer.”

What has been the highlight of your current work term?

A photo of Lauren standing in a garden at the veteran's centre.It’s been really cool to meet the Veterans. I think the average age here at the Veterans Center is 98 and we have dozens of centenarians in this building!”

“I try to take the time to stop and realize, ‘wow’, this person is 103 years old and here they are telling me the story about how they met their wife during the war.”

“We have ex-astronauts, past Olympians, inventors, like crazy, crazy, accomplished people here. It's not every day that you get to meet war heroes.”

“I think it's special that I get to play a role in their care. And oftentimes, as a recreation therapist, we form meaningful and close connections with the residents. It's just amazing to hear their stories and get to spend quality time with them.”

What has been the most challenging thing about co-op?

“In general, I had a bit of a hard time finding a job during the pandemic in healthcare. The priority wasn't necessarily hiring new students.”

“In terms of working in healthcare, specifically, I think it's hard sometimes because you become invested with some patients, and it can be hard trying not to take your work home with you. Especially when there's an outbreak, and residents are confined to their rooms and you're worried about their well-being and quality of life.”

“Sometimes it can be hard to turn that off and step away. And there have been scenarios over my work terms where you are emotionally involved, but you have to learn how to set those professional boundaries, so you don't burn yourself out.”

What is something you learned that you would take on moving forward?

“I've learned a lot. I actually know how to create an application package! I feel a lot more comfortable during interviews. My parents have noticed over the years, listening to my virtual interviews, that I sound much more confident.”

“It's also been a great experience to try some new things on. I didn't think that I wanted to work with the older adult population, but now that I've been doing it, I really enjoy it.”

“I have also learned that I prefer a less medicalized environment, in terms of where I'd like to work long term. It's been very helpful to weed out my preferences and discover what I find enjoyable and rewarding.”

What would be your advice for first-year co-op students?

“I was worried that because I didn't get a job from WaterlooWorks for my first work term, I would have a harder time during my second recruiting process. But your experience is what you make it and I think you can talk up experiences, even if it wasn’t a full-time job.”

“So, learning to market yourself and market your experiences, I think is time well spent.”

What do you have planned in the future?

“I have a few school terms left, another co-op term, and then we have an internship at the end of our degree as well.”

“After that, I'm hoping to apply to grad school for speech-language pathology. And that is a two-year degree. So, I'll be busy doing that. And I’ll see where it takes me from there.”