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Physical Therapy Offers HELP to Elderly

Students Intervene With Patients Living at Home

Steve Cannon, project coordinator, and Assoc. Prof. Connie Seymour of the Physical Therapy Department in the School of Health and Environment, meet with graduate students, from left, Sarah Smulligan, Melissa Graves and Sheena Stone. The students will volunteer as advocates in the HELP program for the frail elderly living on their own.

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“Frequent flyer” has a special definition among those who work with the at-risk elderly. These are the patients who are unable to maintain their health status outside a hospital ߝ they become part of the recidivism statistics for hospitalizations and homecare.

Assoc. Prof. Connie Seymour and project coordinator Steve Cannon, both of the Physical Therapy Department in the School of Health and Environment, are working to change those statistics, using a low-tech intervention.

“We are training students as ‘family member’ advocates,” says Seymour. “They are non-professional, caring individuals who visit twice monthly to help with health monitoring and advocacy.

“Though we’re still in the early stages of the project, we have evidence of positive behavioral change.”

The project, Healthy Elder Living Program (HELP), is a collaboration with the Visiting Nurse Association of Greater Lowell, Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley and Project Teamwork. Started in the fall of 2006, HELP has recently received a second round of funding, a $20,000 grant from the Charles Irwin Travelli Fund.

The program aims to reduce re-hospitalizations through helping elders to pay more attention to monitoring blood pressure, blood sugar and other daily health measurements, as well as improving nutrition and increasing physical activity. Working with 28 clients over six months, the six students in the study have developed rapport with them, helping to improve their health and, more importantly, their outlook.

“The criteria for selection (of study subjects) are that they are relatively socially isolated, have had multiple hospitalizations and have chronic health problems,” says Seymour, who notes that isolation can occur even when family members are present, and leads to depression, reduced activity levels and non-compliance with medications. She says, “Caseworkers are overloaded and can visit their clients only once every couple of months,” whereas the students visit bi-monthly, for about an hour each time, and ask a series of questions about health and activity.

The students found the experience rewarding, yet surprising.

“The HELP program allowed me to see these individuals in their home environment, so I was able to relate to them at a level that was less stressful than a health care setting,” says nursing student Kristen Ardolino. Also, “Acting as an advocate showed me that older adults do not fully understand the health issues they are faced with ߝ one of the clients refused to believe she was sick, while another wanted no help at all with lifestyle modifications.”

Myriam Claudio, doctoral candidate in physical therapy, had similar findings: “Very elderly people who live alone don’t always want to change,” she says. “This was an eye-opener. One client told me, ‘The less I know, the less I have to worry about.’”

However, most of the clients feared being placed in nursing homes, says Claudio, “and that can be a motivator for them to take better care of health issues that require self-management. My first patient didn’t have a fall in six months and that was a great accomplishment.”

The students agree that the clients truly enjoyed their company.

“Mental health plays just as important a role in recovery as physical wellbeing,” says Ardolino.

“One client said she liked the vivacity of young people, rather than bingo or other activities with older friends who may die soon,” says Claudio. “They really appreciate the young therapists who visit.”