By TODD GOTTULA
KEARNEY – The large clock on the wall reads 2:53 p.m.
Outside, an elderly man takes his afternoon walk, greeting strangers as they enter the building.
Inside, a spirited game of bingo is played. I-23. G-46. N-38. The numbers are called out.
“Bingo!” shouts a man. “Bingo,” he repeats. You hear groans from others playing.
It is a typical Monday afternoon at Kearney’s Cambridge Court senior living facility, with one exception.
Upstairs, tucked away in a small area, is a group of nine University of Nebraska at Kearney social work students. They sit in a circle and listen to Nadine Stuehm lecture on today’s topic – social functioning. They talk about support systems for elderly, social activity levels and interactions with service providers.
“This is our classroom,” says Stuehm as students break up and make their way to residents’ rooms. “I want our students to come out of this with an understanding of older people and how to better relate to them.”
UNK students in Stuehm’s Aging Services Social Work class are studying this semester at Cambridge Court, where they meet one-on-one and conduct psychosocial assessments of elderly residents.
Topics discussed are numerous and include everything from chronic illness and physical limitations of residents to their religious beliefs and personal attitudes towards aging. Student interviews with residents also focus on their financial situation, mental health, diet and nutrition, social skills, and relationships with friends and family.
“This gives them opportunities to learn how to ask difficult questions and have what often can be uncomfortable conversations,” says Stuehm, a social work senior lecturer. “They are having real discussions where they have to take it all in.”
Meeting at Cambridge Court gives students experiential learning opportunities to practice their interpersonal skills and better understand needs of the elderly, says Stuehm. “When they become social workers and work with elderly people, they’re not going to get out of those tough conversations.”
Julia Daro, a junior health science major from David City, is paired with resident Judith Middleton this semester. Middleton, 75, has lived at Cambridge Court for almost 16 months.
On this day, their conversation is focused on end-of-life plans. Middleton talks openly with Daro about cremation, funeral arrangements, how she wants her life celebrated, and that her ashes someday will be placed in a columbarium at Kearney’s St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.
These can be difficult discussions for even the most experienced social workers. And yet here is Daro, a 20-year-old student, handling it with a high level of confidence.
“Hearing about all of her life experiences has forced me to look at things through a different lens,” Daro said of working with Middleton. “There have been times where I had to sit back, take things in and really think about what she is saying and what it means to her.”
By the time the semester ends in December, Middleton will have met with Daro 10 times. At the end of the semester, UNK students will share goals and treatment plans they recommend for residents they worked with.
“When this is all over it will be hard to walk away,” said Daro. “Sure, it’s class and I’m doing this for a grade, but I’m definitely developing a bond.”
Middleton and her husband, James Middleton, moved to Kearney in 1979, when he joined the faculty at UNK. He trained elementary guidance counselors. She said helping Daro with her social work class requirements has been enjoyable.
“As I’ve gotten older, I sometimes feel as if I’m not contributing to society,” she said. “Working with Julia, I feel like I’m contributing something again. It’s been a real boost for my morale.”