Feature Stories

USF Students Help Older Adults Age in Place

by Bonnie Beth Silvestri, Director of Strategic Communications


Dr. Brianne Stanback (left) and Dr. Sheila Bosch (fourth from right) with Aging in Space and Place students.

We all love having a place to call home that feels special and reflects our identity; but as we age, our homes may someday become a hazard. A second floor may become inaccessible or a seemingly innocuous lower cabinet may become a threat to our health and safety. Nonetheless, the vast majority of adults approaching late-life wish to remain in their homes for as long as possible.

Dr. Brianne Stanback, Instructor and Internship Director in the School of Aging Studies, has taken the next step by creating a service-learning course called Aging in Space and Place in partnership with Florida Presbyterian Homes, a continuing care retirement community that offers a variety of choices for independent living and assisted living. She received a mini-grant from the Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships to support the implementation of the course.

"The real dividends of our service will come as the ideas are considered and actualized, extending the lifespans of existing structures, informing the design of new construction this year, and improving the quality of life for older residents of today and the future who come to Florida Presbyterian Homes to age in place for as long as possible," said Stanback.

An unintentional benefit of the class's frequent visits to Florida Presbyterian Homes was the companionship they provided to the residents. Stanback said, "I hadn't really thought about that. People were really eager and wanting to contribute in a way that was surprising."

Because the class spoke to some of the hidden purveyors of services—such as certified nursing assistants, groundskeepers, and housekeeping staff —who often establish some of the closest relationships to the residents, they were able to gather information that is "hardly ever captured." She continued, "we validated them by listening and learning from their experience and wisdom."

Also, during the summer, guest lecturers came to campus to share professional insights with the budding gerontologists. Sheila Bosch, Ph.D., for example, came to speak to the students about the unlikely but very important topic of accessible toilet facilities. In her research, Bosch looks at how "the built environment has health related outcomes" and develops "evidence based design" to improve well being.

She seeks to use what she learns from studying the elderly who need assistance to make the home modifications necessary to ease their lives. She also found that the nursing staff who work with elderly are "great at finding workarounds. The nurses do what they need to do to make care happen," but often at a detriment to their own health. She also suggested that family members who visit should be considered when designing for older residents.

Throughout the course and during final presentations, a running theme was the importance of "universal design," which means that which is useful for all and involves making changes that will be just as helpful and satisfying for elderly residents as for those who care for them and visit them. Stanback said that if universal design is implemented, "you won't think of it [a design issue] as a problem because it's already been solved."

On the final day of class, each student presented an aspect of the design plan ultimately to be used by Florida Presbyterian Homes. Three students designed bathrooms, and one, Alex Caudron, even created what he called "a low cost solution for bathroom safety": a shower curtain with a ferromagnetic strip to keep water from spilling out onto the bathroom floor and non-slip tape to further decrease the risk for post-shower slipping to occur. Anneliese Jones, whose proud mother attended the presentation, advocated for varying countertop heights in the kitchen with contrasting colors to make the edges more visible. She compared these developments to the garage door opener, which was once a handicap device but now is used by everyone. Thus, a hallmark of universal design is that it can ease the life of all users, not just those who need it most.

Hanna Soloman recommended talking monitors and voice activated sensory devices for the kitchen as well as creating a "multigenerational platform" for family gatherings. Patricia Henderson and Yoselis Ramos each had ingenious plans to convey a more holistic approach to downsizing. Henderson emphasized the fact that downsizing can be "traumatic for older adults and their family," so it is best to view it as a process. She talked about how much we view our "things" as essential to our identity and to our ability to maintain control in our lives. Henderson suggested an annual sale for residents to gather up things they no longer need to facilitate the continuous downsizing process. Such a sale would present fundraising and resident engagement opportunities, as well as involving the greater community.

Ramos had a very special plan for a scrapbooking service to "encapsulate [the] fleeting experience" represented by their personal effects and help older residents "journal and tell the story" of their things before getting rid of what they no longer need. She said we often have "hoarding tendencies," which give us a sense of control, so we need to find a way to part with unnecessary items while holding onto the memories those items held for us. Also, older adults are able to leave a legacy for their children and grandchildren to understand their lives and history.

At the conclusion of the course, Stanback said to her students, "I asked you to trust me and come with me on this journey, ... and I couldn't be more pleased with how this turned out. You really were original."