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Aging “Escape Room” Designed to Grow Awareness and Empathy

Jan 02, 2020 07:30AM ● By Med Magazine

With healthier habits and better healthcare, many people now live well into their 80s and 90s. In fact, the percentage of people over 60 is expected to grow to 32% in the most developed nations by 2050. (Up from 2006 numbers of 17% in North America and 23% in Western Europe). But our fast-paced, high-energy, youth-oriented culture doesn’t give much consideration to aging citizens. 

“We all journey through the aging experience, yet there is a societal lack of understanding and empathy towards those of us who are farther along the journey,” said Jeremy Coss, 2019 graduate of the Health Services Administration program at the University of South Dakota. “This lack of understanding and empathy leads to belittling, mistreating, segregating, and in extreme cases, dehumanizing the aging population that has so much to offer.” 

These challenges inspired Carole South-Winter, EdD, assistant professor of Health Services Administration (HSAD) at the USD Beacom School of Business, to find a creative solution to help healthcare organizations better prepare their workforce to care for their current and future patients. 

South-Winter’s idea for an empathetic aging “escape room” experience began to take form at a holiday party in 2018. After receiving positive feedback from her peers, South-Winter began working with Cass, her graduate assistant, to start bringing the idea to life. 

Together with members of their HSAD Student Organization HEAL (Healthcare Executives Advancing in Leadership), Coss and South-Winter began creating an aging experience that allows individuals to have a firsthand perspective of difficulties the elderly community face every day, such as cataracts, arthritis and hearing loss. They simulate this through specialized equipment including modified goggles, shoes and headphones.

“We can bridge this gap of understanding and empathy best through experience, open-mindedness, and honest communication,” said Coss. “The program is designed to develop experience and encourage critical thought and honest dialogue with the aging population and this unique opportunity will absolutely change the way our society approaches the aged life.”

“We hope to pave the way for a more understanding, supportive and mutually beneficial approach to caring for an aging adult,” said South-Winter.

Here are some graduate students’ reaction to the experience:

 “Working at a nursing home my freshman year I never felt as if I truly understood what my residents were going through,” said health service administration graduate Mirand Pfund. “Fast forward two years later, and I find myself putting on insane-looking goggles and bulky headphones.”

“When Dr. South-Winter brought up the idea of creating our own aging activity, I was excited to be involved in every step of the process. Creating the Aging Activity not only taught me about the aging process, but it also helped strengthen my teamwork skills. From brainstorming ideas, recreating aging ailments, performing research with evidence to support, to actually performing the activity at conferences, we were all involved in every step.” Brianna Sparks, MBA Graduate Assistant

“The planning that went into this activity was extensive. Hours were spent researching ways to simulate the ailments of aging while finding the best deal for our limited investment funds. We worked tirelessly on this project and it was so rewarding to see it come to fruition. Presenting this project to current healthcare executives at conferences is my favorite part; participants’ mindset regarding aging completely changed as they went through the activity.” Morgan Engelkes, MBA Student

“As soon as I was introduced to HEAL’s aging experience, I knew I had to get involved. The aging experience has the opportunity to allow caretakers to momentarily step into the shoes of their patients to experience life through their eyes. Only when we are able to walk in someone else’s shoes can we truly understand their experiences; and with that understanding comes compassion and empathy.”  Jon Nguyen, HEAL Fall 2019 President

The Beacom School of Business is the largest supplier of health services administrators in South Dakota. The Health Services Administration student organization called Health Executives Advancing Leadership (HEAL) is committed to providing a unique and educational experience. 


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