Free rent and meals offered by nursing home to students in companionship program

Hannah is living every university student’s dream — her rent is a grand total of $0.

But the perk is complicated, and her neighbours are often 60 years her senior.

“I live in a nursing home, which is pretty cool,” the Toowoomba-born physiotherapy student said.

“It’s not every day you have elderly people as your housemates or neighbours.”

The 25-year-old’s living situation is thanks in part of the Gold Soul Companionship Program based at Scalabrini Bexley, a nursing home in Sydney’s south.

For just 30 hours of volunteered conversation and friendship each month, four allied health students from the University of Sydney receive free accommodation and meals.

Patricia Brown laughing after taking a Snapchat.
PHOTO: Patricia Brown says having the students around keeps her young and using apps like Snapchat. (ABC Radio Sydney: Harriet Tatham)

“Being from interstate, it’s literally like I have a hundred and something grandparents living next door to me,” she said.

Her neighbour and close friend Neville Tucker said he loved the program, as it meant he was interacting with young people like Hannah.

“She’s good company and she’s very, very nice,” the 91-year-old said.

“I’d have her for life, but she’s too young for me,” he laughed.

Neville Tucker, 91, looking at Hannah.
PHOTO: With 66 years between them, Neville and Hannah are close friends. (ABC Radio Sydney: Harriet Tatham)

‘Their faces light up’

The intergenerational living program began in 2018 in an effort by the nursing home to improve the isolation and depression faced by many ageing Australians.

“People in aged care can suffer from depression, and the engagement that the students have with the residents — I’ve seen a change in some of them,” said Tracey Gill, who is in charge of wellbeing at the facility.

“The girls come in and they walk into a room and they know them and their faces just light up.”

While the four students, all young women, have to fulfil their 30 hours of volunteering, there’s no strict guides about what they have to do.

They listen to music with the residents or go for coffee and see a movie; the lack of structure is by design and helps to introduce spontaneity to the home.

“Staff have certain responsibilities in looking after the health and wellbeing, but it doesn’t always mean they can stop and have a long chat, or make an appointment for somebody who never has visitors on a Saturday,” senior occupational therapy lecturer Dr Sanetta Du Toit said.

“Everything can be spontaneous with the students.”

The students looking after the residents.
PHOTO: The program has been improving the mental health of the residents. (ABC Radio Sydney: Harriet Tatham)

And for the residents, the innovative program has been a success.

“I don’t want to mix with old farts with me, you know. I mix with young people to stay young,” Heinz Brzoson said.

“They’re wonderful, they come and visit, they help me do my craft,” Patricia Brown added.

Shaping future health workers

While the program is improving health for the elderly, it’s also shaping the future health workers.

“There’s quite a lot of research that has been done that has shown that people can’t move away from their biases,” Dr Du Toit said.

“Ageism is rife and we need to give our students the opportunity really to get to know an older person for who they are.

“This is that opportunity.”

For the students struggling to fit in study and clinical placements, free board really takes the pressure off.

“The food is good, I’ve got to admit, and as a uni student it’s great having food provided for you,” Hannah laughed.

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