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Occupational therapy students provide holistic help to Hamilton communities

Wintec Occupational Therapy students are working with community partners in Hamilton

Occupational Therapy students at Wintec have been working with community partners in Hamilton including the Selwyn Centre – Chartwell, who provide support for lonely and isolated people aged 65 and over.


Occupational Therapy/Whakaora Ngangahau (OT) students in Hamilton are promoting holistic healing and rehabilitation by collaborating with local community groups.

Each year, students in their third year of the degree programme help deliver a community-based project by working closely with the chosen group or community, to identify a specific need and work with them to create solutions with an occupational focus.

The Bachelor of Occupational Therapy degree has been offered at Wintec through Otago Polytechnic for the past eleven years.

Jessica Harries is a third-year OT student who worked with the Selwyn Centre in Chartwell, Hamilton, to create resources and an exercise video around falls prevention.

The Selwyn Centre is a community organisation run by the Selwyn Foundation. Their kaupapa (ethos) is about providing support to people over 65 years old who are lonely or socially isolated.

They wanted an exercise video tailored for them that focussed on falls and how to prevent them with an emphasis on improving strength and balance.

“ACC statistics and other research has shown that when you develop strength and balance, it really reduces the risk of falling,” says Harries.

“It took us a while to research what exercises would be most appropriate for the ageing community, practise doing them and make them work for the group.”

Working with another student, Harries had eight weeks to complete the project, which was challenging during last year’s lockdowns.

It also meant that rather than co-starring in the exercise video, Harries would have to do it solo.

“The person I was doing this with moved to Wellington. The initial idea for the video was that there would be two people in video, but because we were in different cities, it ended up being just me! It was a bit awkward watching it for the first few times, but I'm getting used to it now,” she says.

Another lockdown-induced challenge was that they weren’t able to meet many of the people who use the Selwyn Centre until the very last week of the project.

“We were hoping to collaborate in person more, and it really would have been nice to feature them in the video rather than just me, a fit 21-year-old who’s telling them “You can do it!”.

Despite that, the video was met with a great reception, with Harries saying that “it’s encouraging to see them doing it, trialing it and making adjustments based on their feedback. There are challenges but you just get so excited about the end results.”

Helen McAlpine, coordinator for the Selwyn Centre – Chartwell, says that those who have participated in the exercises have “loved it.”

“We have worked with occupational therapy students in previous years, but I knew exactly what I wanted this time around. We had been trying different videos on YouTube but none of them met the whole need, so I asked the students to create a 30-minute video on falls prevention, exercises and education,” she says.

McAlpine is a retired occupational therapist and so understands the benefit it can have in the lives of ageing communities and commends the students for their mahi (work).

“The video is amazing and they’ve put so much effort into the research and have taken on board all the comments people have made along the way. They’ve put a lot of work in.”

Another student, Alexandra Denkowski worked on an entirely different project altogether, collaborating with Hamilton City Libraries to structure the blueprint for a project called the ‘Hamilton Human Narrative’.

“A human narrative is an in-person event where an individual is considered a living book,” says Denkowski.

“They share their life story and experience, and the people who attend the event are the readers who listen to the stories of the living books. The idea is to break down stigma and barriers, and to connect people.”

As the project was so large, the role of the occupational therapy students was to brainstorm ideas and find a way to make the project meaningful for different people in Hamilton.

“Instead of focussing on the entire population of Hamilton, we stuck to one demographic to truly understand their needs. We chose 15–25-year-old school leavers as during our research we discovered there was a high percentage of school leavers who are unemployed, or face life-long struggles with unemployment,” says Denkowski.

Through conducting a series of surveys with school leavers and first year tertiary students, Denkowski and her partner did a thematic analysis of the answers and found that they related to the statistics found in their research evidence.

From there, they were able to provide Hamilton City Libraries with recommendations about who would make suitable living books in order to combat unemployment in youth, to break down stigma attached to certain jobs and to introduce new career pathways.

According to Denkowski, “the library team loved the document that was produced and found it super insightful” and are keen to implement the findings of the students when they roll out the Hamilton Human Narrative in the future.

Kim Reay, an Occupational Therapy lecturer for the degree programme says that the community outreach projects have a multitude of benefits for all involved - the students, the school, and the community.

“Every year we reach out to communities. Some organisations we have ongoing relationships with like the Selwyn Centre, and we always get a few new projects in as well like the Hamilton City Library,” says Reay.

“We spend a lot of time talking to people asking them to take us on board and provide placements for our students, so there’s a lot of trust. We build up networks and it’s grown into something that’s really beneficial for the community,” she adds.

It’s the focus on community needs and helping people that drives both Harries and Denkowski in their occupational therapy journeys.

“For me, occupational therapy brings together all the interesting holistic parts of health, and it’s like teaching in a way because it’s about sharing knowledge and building relationships,” says Harries.

Denkowski too enjoys the holistic nature of occupational therapy, saying “it really looks at the whole person, about how a person’s environment, their social and cultural aspects impact a person and I like helping individuals advance in all of those ways.”

“We’re driven by occupation, what people enjoy doing and the things they choose to engage in do daily. By choosing occupation as therapeutic medium, it increases their motivation to engage and their ability to get better quicker or rehabilitate themselves faster.”

Find out more about studying a Bachelor of Occupational Therapy.

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