Nurses-to-be share caring communication with assisted-living residents

It will take more than a worldwide health crisis to slow down the Community Service arm of Louisiana Tech’s Division of Nursing.

A cornerstone for many of the nursing program’s learning objectives, community service can be as easy as organizing blood pressure checks in various sites across Ruston. Unfortunately, social distancing rules took away that option and many other face-to-face possibilities.

But that closed door opened another window of opportunity, one of the students’ writing letters to those in assisted living facilities and nursing homes. This novel idea proved to be the program’s positive signature spin on spring quarter.

Ninety-two nursing students under four professors in combined sections of both Nursing 110 (Introduction to Application of the Nursing Process) and Nursing 114 (Adult Health Maintenance II) have written to 92 residents living in five different facilities — one in Minden, one in Jonesboro, and three in Ruston.

“The project was born out of necessity,” said associate professor Tara Haskins. “But all faculty involved (Becki Clark, Melissa Madden, and Sarah McVay) agree that the project should continue even when things are back to normal.”

It was important to protect the residents’ identity, so Tech’s inside-the-facilities contacts provided the room number only and a brief description of the interests or past careers of the residents. This information was shared with the nursing students, who could connect with the residents as someone who had hobbies, interests, and a meaningful career, maybe a shared interest with the student. Students connected with writers, teachers, coaches, gardeners, farmers, pilots, artists, and more. A Google Doc was created so students could “choose” their residents virtually.

“Often when looking at older adults, we see someone who is ‘retired’ and forget about their productive past and what makes them unique,” said Haskins.

Also, the letters were delivered safely. The students’ virtual letters were sent via Moodle to faculty who reviewed them, printed them, placed them in self-sealable envelopes, and delivered them to each facility.

Letters were handwritten to make them more personal. Students had to consider the visual challenges of the older adults to be sure the letters were written with larger fonts and adequate spacing.

“Students included word searches, color pages, or activities geared toward each resident’s interest,” Haskins said. “Some students chose to share their photo, or photos of their own interests, or photos to illustrate their stories. Students were encouraged to stay hopeful and share something of themselves across the written page.”

Student Jack Witherspoon of Ruston shared some of his art work and drawings. Taylor Starlin of Dubach shared some of her 4-H experiences with a farmer. Logan Carver of Dubach received return mail from the resident he contacted.

Sophomore nursing student Kenzie Gaspard of Forked Island in Vermillion Parish is also an AFROTC cadet; she wrote to a former WWII pilot.

“I felt I had a lot to share,” she said. “Each time I sit down to write, it makes me reflect more on how I can give some extra time to work harder at making someone else’s life a little bit better.

“I chose to join the nursing program so I could serve my country as well as serve other individuals around me,” Gaspard said. “This project has helped me to work on that goal little by little and it has made a world of difference in my own life. I always try to include a doodle of some kind of airplane with my letters because I know the patient was a pilot and I love arts and crafts projects. Drawing helps me to de-stress sometimes when it has been a long day. Hopefully, my airplane doodles bring smiles for who is receiving them.”

The only background beginning nursing student Cheyenne Tatum of Farmerville got about her resident was that “she loves humor,” Tatum said. “The project has helped me express my humor and try to make others laugh in the world’s state of crisis.”

Tatum’s first letter was about a backyard camping trip with her sister, little brother, and what she called their “guard dog.”

“It had been such a beautiful day,” she said of the “trip’s” inspiration. “We had our chocolate lab in the tent with us and he would warn us when something bad would happen.”

Something spooked the dog, and “needless to say this camping trip was short-lived,” Tatum wrote in her letter, “because within a few hours we were running into the house like a stampeding herd of cattle.”

Residents received a total of three letters each, one every two weeks during the heart of the quarter.

“We wanted the residents to understand that the letter-writing project had a beginning and an end,” Haskins said. “It was important to not leave them hanging. This is no different than what nurses do with clients in the hospital or community. We call this the helping relationship: gathering information about your client (pre-orientation), orienting them to the time you will be working with them (orientation), engaging in meaningful connection (working), and saying goodbye (termination). This structure fit our learning objectives perfectly.”

The project proved perfect as a way of combatting residents’ necessary restrictions caused by the pandemic. To protect them, residents couldn’t leave the facility and visitors were not allowed. Gone for now were hugs and kisses and hands to hold.

But to the rescue was something to fill the void, both letters from younger fellow travelers who wanted to make a positive difference, and a genuine, caring communication component this spring for Tech’s nurses-to-be.

Tech’s Division of Nursing hopes eventually to publish the project, both for inspiration and to offer the idea to other programs as a way of community outreach and service.