Broadened perspectives

Students meet representatives of the Irish Dementia Working Group, a national ad

Undergraduate and graduate students of speech and hearing sciences at Lamar University earned course credit abroad this summer as they learned new, person-centered approaches to engaging individuals with dementia in Liverpool, England, and Dublin, Ireland.

“Simply by traveling and being abroad, students are exposed to so many small differences in culture and perspective. This alone is beautifully transformative. Students on my trip learned a great deal of course-related content, but also so much more,” said Karen Whisenhunt Saar, instructor of speech-language pathology.

Whisenhunt Saar says that although regular university courses include instruction on cognitive communicative disorders such as those related to dementias, students’ hands-on learning is limited. That’s what inspired her to begin designing the program in 2015.

“I couldn’t create a classroom lecture based on this experience that would provide even a fraction of the learning potential or excitement. … The work my students will soon be doing will mean so much more to them because of this,” she said.

The program included two courses: a neurology course for undergraduates taught by DeLanea Bronson, clinical supervisor and instructor for the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, and a graduate course focused on dementia care and dementia-friendly community projects led by Whisenhunt Saar.

“The UK and Ireland have been diligent in devoting resources to create and sustain wonderful dementia-friendly communities and support. A person-centered approach to care is also very important in the places that we visited, and I hope that this sends a strong message to my students,” said Whisenhunt Saar.

Whisenhunt Saar’s students earned credit for an elective required by their master’s degree in speech-language pathology. They prepared for the trip through research, meetings with a representative of the Alzheimer’s Association and a trip to Silsbee Oaks Health Care, a local skilled nursing facility, to better understand working with individuals affected by cognitive-communication disorders secondary to diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Once abroad, excursions included training on memory stimulation and communication strategies at the House of Memories in Liverpool, England; a meeting and interview with the House of Memories staff; a visit to the Alzheimer Society of Ireland main office to meet with the Irish Dementia Working Group; and participation in various dementia-friendly community projects.

The group also made time for sightseeing. In Dublin, they toured Malahide Castle and its gardens and visited the Trinity University library to see the historic book of Kells. During a weekend trip in Northern Ireland, they hiked at the Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO world heritage site.

“The life and care of people with dementia varies depending on societal and governmental support for individuals. I hoped that this experience would provide a larger sense of how to support this population, both as speech-language pathologists and as citizens in their communities,” Whisenhunt Saar said.

Haley Hebert, an LU speech and hearing sciences graduate and master’s student of speech language pathology from La Vernia, says that her favorite part of the trip was talking with the Irish dementia working group.

“Some of the people that we spoke to from the group were just recently diagnosed, as early as three months ago, and hearing about their personal experiences about their life with dementia was inspirational, emotional, and empowering,” said Hebert.

This summer’s program was the first to be offered for speech and hearing sciences in the UK and Ireland. Of the 15 participants, 10 were graduate students in speech-language pathology and five were undergraduate students in speech and hearing sciences; two of the attended undergrads are students of Baylor University and Stephen F. Austin State University.