July 23, 2019

Involving Students in Holistic Wellness for Seniors

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By Alicia S. Landry, PhD, RDN, LDN, SNS
Lydia Sartain, MS, RD, LD, CDE
Nina Roofe, PhD, RDN, LDN, FAND, CNWE

College of Health and Behavioral Sciences, University of Central Arkansas


Making the aging process fulfilling and enjoyable should be the goal of healthcare providers working with older adults. While indicators of wellness have been assessed to see how they may interrelate in aging, there is still some work to be done to get the message out that holistic wellness in older adults can positively impact quality of life. For example, in patients diagnosed with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, declines in functional status have been related to declines in cognition1. In frail and cognitively impaired elderly people, strength and balance training showed improvements in functional and cognitive abilities2. Finally, older adults who report social isolation, also show delayed recovery of systolic blood pressure in response to stress3. A focus on holistic health and wellness in the senior population is a complex, yet much-needed objective.

In order to approach aging holistically, there are a few key recommendations healthcare providers can encourage older adults to do:

  1. Stay active and engaged in social relationships
  2. Spend time mentoring others
  3. Eat a healthy diet
  4. Exercise body and mind
  5. Find healthcare providers they trust

With these in mind, faculty at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) developed an interprofessional learning opportunity for students and local older adults. Through our ongoing partnership with Faulkner County Center on Aging, we were able to enhance our theme meal by involving students from nutrition and dietetics, interior design, and family and consumer sciences (FACS) education. The goal was to provide a service to the elderly participants  while encouraging interprofessional interactions outside of the classroom environment. The theme meal encouraged all the students to assess quickly and think critically during the event, a valuable skill for their future careers.

FACS majors who needed to assess growth and development milestones asked participants to bring in grandchildren. Interior design students observed the building and activities to work with mobility and design issues, then make recommendations. Nutrition students developed and produced a healthy, safe meal with any leftovers going to homebound seniors. The student-produced menu was based on the theme, A Night at the Drive-In, and included grilled hamburgers, oven roasted potatoes, tossed salad, ambrosia salad, and chocolate chip cookies.

The theme meal was successful, and students learned valuable lessons, including planning, organizing, budgeting, and ensuring customer satisfaction. Students also had the opportunity to develop higher level skills, including effective management and decision making. The interprofessional aspect provided students the opportunity to learn textbook concepts while interacting with others to meet numerous objectives for their classes.

Student reflections included quotes like:

“During the theme meal project I learned how to better work with others and share ideas to come up with one main idea. This helped me learn how to come up with the main idea collaboratively and emphasized the importance of communication. This can be applied to learning because it is important to listen to other ideas and consider what is the best one and maybe even putting more than one idea together to find the best outcome. Part of learning is collaborating with others and being willing to put your idea aside if someone has a better one.”

“Accountability is an interesting subject we covered this semester. I honestly thought we would have a problem with someone not doing their part for the theme meal. I was so wrong! I was so proud of how responsible every single person was the day of the theme meal. Everyone arrived on time and did the part they were assigned. There was no withdrawal, aggression, regression, or projection. The reason why I thought back to this topic is that I experience problems with accountability from my staff at work. I guess I assumed that more college students act like this than I thought, and is why I was worried about it from our class. I am so pleased with the maturity of our class’s theme meal. Everyone was accountable for a task and completed it with no complaints”.

“I would have liked to spend more time talking to those who  frequent the center in order to get a better understanding of what a normal day looks like to them.”

“My favorite thing was seeing all of the seniors enjoy the theme of the meal and the meal itself. I think that this theme was great because it was something everyone, despite many differences, could enjoy!”

After evaluating student reflections and surveys from the meal participants, we began to consider other ways in which holistic senior wellness could be addressed. Our search led us to consider a fascinating study done to assess seniors’ wellness using e-health applications4. These researchers used technology to ask seniors questions, look at physical and functional health, as well as spend time with them in an assisted living facility. The takeaway message was that this method provided immediate feedback and education opportunities to promote holistic well-being in seniors. In future collaborations, we would like to integrate technology applications to assess cognitive performance, physiological and functional variables, as well as other components of wellness like social and financial aspects. With these added components, healthcare providers in communication and speech, psychology and counseling, health education, physical and occupational therapy, as well as kinesiology could be seamlessly integrated into a community preventative health model that is beneficial and scalable. Using something like a theme meal to get students serving in our community has been a fantastic way to introduce them to interprofessional care as well as teach critical components in our disciplines. Getting students involved in interprofessional discussions and regularly assessing the domains of wellness alongside senior adults could redefine holistic wellness in aging.




  1. Stella F, Banzato CEM, Quagliato EMAB, Viana MA, Christofoletti G. Dementia and functional decline in patients with Parkinson’s disease. Dement Neuropsychol. 2008;2(2):96–101. doi:10.1590/S1980-57642009DN20200004
  2. Dorner T, Kranz A, Zettl-Wiedner K, Ludwig C, Rieder A, Gisinger C. The effect of structured strength and balance training on cognitive function in frail, cognitive impaired elderly long-term care residents. Aging Clin Exp Res. 2007 Oct;19(5):400-5.PMID: 18007119
  3. Xia N, Li H. Loneliness, Social Isolation, and Cardiovascular Health. Antioxid Redox Signal. 2018;28(9):837–851. doi:10.1089/ars.2017.7312
  4. Thompson HJ, Demiris G, Rue T, et al. A Holistic approach to assess older adults’ wellness using e-health technologies. Telemed J E Health. 2011;17(10):794–800. doi:10.1089/tmj.2011.0059