Summer days for most college students are filled with barbecues, tanning, ice cream and relaxing with good friends. But if you ask Miami University graduate student Molly Trauten how she spent her summer vacation, she wouldn’t dispute the fact that her summer consisted of spending time with good friends – they just might not be the friends you’re expecting.
“It was sort of a process to make friends at the nursing homes because I was always the new person, But because of age some will not remember our friendship. It made me appreciate the present moment.”
This past summer, Trauten spent 12 weeks living as a resident in Maine nursing homes, keeping a journal of her experience every step of the way.
From a young age Molly had an interest in the elderly. Visits with her grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, made her comfortable in the nursing home atmosphere. She enjoyed spending time with people who had lived their lives and had infinite amounts of wisdom to dispense.
Intrigued with the study of human behavior, Trauten attended Vassar College where she earned a degree in anthropology. She then came to Miami to begin a two-year master’s program in gerontology, the study of aging.
With summer approaching, Trauten had the idea to live as a resident in a nursing home to complete her 12-week observation program. Marilyn Gugliucci, who teaches a course at University of New England’s medical school, heard of Trauten’s interest. The two met at a convention and plans were made.
A summer before meeting Trauten, Marilyn Gugliucci arranged for another medical student to live in a nursing home for a couple weeks. Gugliucci hopes to establish a project like this for future students, in hopes it will encourage anyone who is interested to live the life of an older adult.
“I think the key to the project is to have students get beyond the physical conditions of the older adults or the health conditions and get down to the essence of who the person is,” Gugliucci said. “Often times when a student has the opportunity to interact and move beyond their age and their health they find out they are just like any body. They are real people with a heart, with real feelings.”
Trauten went into the summer with only a few expectations. Her first was to gain a better understanding of older people, so that once in the field she would have more than textbook knowledge to help her be empathetic.
Trauten was mainly focused on ethnography, when an outsider enters into a different culture in the hopes of better understanding his or her situation through his or her own perspective.
“The goal is to try to suspend assumptions, to cast a wide net, ask a broad question,” Trauten said. “I knew I would never know what it was like to live in a nursing home, but I would try to understand.”
Trauten divided her summer residency between three facilities: Cedar Ridge Center for Healthcare and Rehabilitation in Skowhegan, Maine; St. Andres Health Care Facility in Biddeford, Maine; and Seal Rock Healthcare at Atlantic Heights in Saco, Maine.
She spent more than a month at the St. Andres facility, where she concluded her summer program as an intern.
“I wanted to have as few preconceived notions as possible. I tried not to expect anything when I went to the nursing homes.”
Feeling neither intimidated nor worried, she entered the nursing homes with no reservations about the acceptance of her and the project. Upon living there, very few of the residents questioned her project, and once she stopped looking through the eyes of a researcher she became one of them.
At the homes, Trauten’s concept of time altered and her days revolved around shift changes and mealtime. During her first few nights there, she would spend time on her cell phone and check her e-mail, but as time progressed, she ultimately found it easier to avoid contact with the outside world.
Not only did she live in the homes 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but at St. Andres they “diagnosed” her with congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). As a result, she spent four weeks using a walker and had an oxygen mask attached to her.
Trauten has yet to go through her field study journal that she kept throughout her experience. She admits that she still needs to sort through the pages and pages of information she recorded, feeling slightly overwhelmed with all she learned and gained from the experience.
With the summer over, Trauten said she seemed to understand more of her stay as the days passed. She felt it helped her to appreciate the finer things in life and to take time to relax.
“It affected me in so many ways: I miss the environment, I miss the nursing home, I miss the people. It was hard to transition back to school.”
Upon reflection, Trauten admits that not only did she discover more about her field of study, about nursing home patients and how people are the same despite their ages, but she also learned more about herself.
“I think the whole summer was very humbling,” Trauten said. “It’s easy to get caught up in self-important stuff, but spending time with individuals who have lived all their life, they were concerned with things that mattered most. They didn’t worry about little things. I hope I can continue to apply that.”
One of the most surprising discoveries for Trauten was the feedback and all the media attention she has received. She said she finds it a bit ironic that the only reason her situation is so popular is because she’s so young.
“If an 85-year-old woman were to do what I did, it wouldn’t be sensational,” Trauten said. “Hopefully, people will question their reaction and what that says about how they feel about aging or nursing homes.”
This is exactly the reaction Trauten’s Miami faculty coordinator for the summer practice, Kathryn Mcgrew, felt. Over the summer McGrew visited Trauten in a nursing home, and despite the fact that she teaches against ageism, which is a bias against an age group, McGrew still worried about Trauten and her mental health.
“It reminded me that we should be thinking about these concerns for the hundred of thousands who do live in nursing homes,” McGrew said. “We should be having that same reaction. It hit me in a way I didn’t anticipate.”
With the project now completed, Trauten has yet to narrow down the specific job she hopes to pursue following the completion of her master’s degree. While in the nursing home she discovered there is not a job specifically set for a gerontologist. After graduating she hopes to either create a position utilizing her gerontology knowledge at a place like St. Andres or simply work in a nursing home until she decides what to do.
Until then, Trauten carries her experience with her each day.
“I left pieces of my heart in Maine,” Trauten said. “It will take a while to heal.”