Teaching Excellence:
The Glorious Complexity of Ageing

by Julie Lees and Sally Thorne

“If we could, as a society, be more embracing
of aging, [rather] than thinking of it as dysfunctional and sick, then there wouldn’t be such a strong desire to deny it,” she says. “Let’s look at the knowledge and wisdom that comes with aging and not be afraid.”

JoAnn Perry

Within the first five minutes of class, Dr. JoAnn Perry, Associate Professor, polls her Nursing Care of Older Adults class for examples from their own lives related to the day’s subject of dementia. She acknowledges each response and incorporates what the students offer into her lecture. This level of engagement helps her students relate the material to their own lives and experiences and, in so doing, expands their views of older adults and their care.

“I know our students have the capacity to make changes,” says JoAnn, “and if care will improve for
our elderly it will be because we have a critical mass of nurses who are well educated about older adults and able to make change based on knowledge, not myth.” This earnest enthusiasm for expanding the knowledge base and practice passion of her students contributed to JoAnn receiving the 2006 UBC Killam Teaching Prize—an honour awarded to UBC faculty members who have been nominated by students, colleagues and alumni/ae. “I am truly honoured by this,” says JoAnn, “in part because I see nursing as a practice profession so when we teach we have to be able to make the whole idea of practice visible in the classroom in a meaningful way.”

JoAnn’s passion for the field of gerontology grew during her early teaching days when she discovered the clash between clinical and theoretical realities as they affected this critically important population. “For many years I had a joint appointment with the School and the Vancouver General Hospital,” says JoAnn. “My office was in Purdy Pavilion (an extended care facility on campus) so I got to know the patients, staff, residents and families very well.”

This intimate connection allowed JoAnn to share practical knowledge and theory between the classroom and the clinical setting. She discovered that what was being reported in the literature on dementia in older adults didn’t match exactly with what was happening in the clinical setting. The caregiver literature seemed predominantly directed toward caregiver burden. “Without a doubt there is burden,” says JoAnn, “but the experience is also filled with commitment, family and cultural values, and pure and simple love and devotion.” As she began studying the role of care giver she began to see the unique relationship that exists between the ill family member and the one giving care. “This person is more than a caregiver,” says JoAnn. “This person is also a daughter or a wife or a brother.”

As people age they become more and more complex—a truth JoAnn tries to impart to her students. “I love aging!” says JoAnn, “and we really have to refine the notion of nursing as collaboration with the elderly. This has to come through what we teach nurses today. Ten babies will more often than not be much more alike than 10 older adults. There is so much to learn and to know about communicating with and giving care to older adults.”

Throughout her years of teaching, JoAnn has developed a number of techniques to engage students in the subject matter. “I expect myself to be organized, prepared and to approach each subject with an open mind,” she says, “and, I expect that from the students as well. I want them to be open to hearing what is being said so they can truly think about it, accept it or challenge it.” JoAnn’s goal is to balance theory and practice, to bring research into the classroom and to bring theory into the practice. “Each week I set a clinical goal in the class.” The clinical instructors and students take that goal, based on the weekly lecture, into their clinical placement. “During the next class we can talk about how the theory played out in operation. The integration is really important.”

JoAnn hopes her students learn how to expand their own repertoire of skills to communicate with people who have dementia in order to make their lives richer. “If we could, as a society, be more embracing of aging than thinking of it as dysfunctional and sick then there wouldn’t be such a strong desire to deny it,” she says. “Let’s look at the knowledge and wisdom that comes with aging and not be afraid.”

The School wholeheartedly congratulates JoAnn on her 2006 Killam Teaching Prize and looks forward to a future of nurses highly skilled in the realm of gerontology and caring for the older adult.

This article was first published in the Nursing newsletter, Touchpoints