Top Menu

Secret to aged care happiness


A positive attitude could be the most important element to a happy life in residential aged care, according to early findings of a research collaboration between Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and aged care provider BallyCara.

The three-year longitudinal study involving 110 participants is using an active ageing framework to explore and track changes in experiences, expectations and perceptions of current and future older Australians towards aged care.

The Happiness in residential aged care project also involves older participants living in aged care documenting the highs and lows of their daily lives with photographs. (See image gallery below).


Associate Professor Evonne Miller

Lead researcher Associate Professor Evonne Miller said active ageing was critical to happiness in aged care, but early findings were showing individual attitude was also key.

“We are digging deeper into the data now and it is starting to show us that it is a conscious choice that people can make. They can either decide that they want to be happy and enjoy it or they can decide that they want to be angry, grouchy or unhappy,” Professor Miller, an environmental psychologist at QUT, told Australian Ageing Agenda.

According to initial findings from this project and the immediately preceding pilot study, Professor Miller said they have found five key things predicting happiness in aged care:

  • mental attitude and making a conscious decision to give it a go;
  • having a structure for living with activities to look forward to;
  • joining and becoming family with fellow residents and staff;
  • feeling safe and comfortable in the physical environment;
  • maintaining independence, privacy, freedom and self-determination.

From the provider side, Professor Miller said that enabling staff to spend that extra five or 10 minutes talking to residents is an important element that has a major benefit to residents’ health and happiness.

“We are finding already that this is the thing that they really value; contact with the staff, having that social interaction and staff seeing them as individual not just another resident or another older person they walk past,” Prof Miller said.

She said research collaborator BallyCara Retirement and Aged Care in Brisbane was a natural partner in this respect with its Sona philosophy, which aims to increase the wellbeing and happiness of its 120 aged care residents. Sona means happiness in Gaelic.

CEO Marcus Riley said aged care has traditionally focused on clinical outcomes, but happiness was a critical component to senior’s living healthier and longer lives.

“Making people happy sounds obvious, but when people are facing major change, such as retirement or entry into aged care, they’re often very upset and anxious. To reduce the likelihood or impacts of depression at this time in their lives, we’re focusing on the emotional wellbeing as much as the physical,” he said.

Happiness in aged care project

The study includes 20 aged care residents at BallyCara, 10 community-dwelling aged care recipients and 10 older people living in the community who are not receiving aged care services. Each person nominates a family member or friend plus a representative from their service provider, where applicable, to speak about them.

The researchers are collecting information through quantitative surveys, in-depth face-to-face interviews, observation, diaries, and PhotoVoice, which is where the 40 older participants record their daily life through photographs. (See residents’ images from the pilot study in the gallery below.)

In addition to tracking changes in people’s attitudes and experiences, Professor Miller said the study aimed to highlight a realistic view of an older person’s life in aged care and in the community from their perspective.

“We are giving them cameras and asking them to take pictures of their daily life, which is really good to see. When we look at aged care research, we do a lot about interventions into aged care … but we don’t often sit back and say hang on what is it actually like to live there,” she said.

Participants are asked to photograph the positive and negative aspects of their daily life, but Prof Miller said the older resident cohort has been a little reluctant to document the latter.

However, she said the project has a $300,000 ARC Linkage grant which aims to identify what does and does not work in ageing in order to prepare for the baby boomers who will expect and demand more than current residents. Participants are therefore being encouraged to highlight the negative.

“Originally we just asked them to take some photos about a month in their life or two weeks in life. Now we have narrowed it down to one day and they have to take at least one photo an hour for a day, just to capture that negativity,” she said.

Expected outcomes of the project include engaging the wider community in a conversation about ageing in aged care, physical and online photo exhibitions of participants’ photos; and an integrative model of active ageing in Australian residential care. The study is due to be completed at the end of 2016.

Images are from the ‘My Life: Frangipanis, Friendship and Football’ exhibition and comprise photos taken by BallyCara aged care residents in the pilot ‘Happiness in aged care’ study. PhotoVoice contributors include Betty, Kylie, Beryl, June, Agnes, Jeffrey, Carol and Graham.

, , , , ,

One Response to Secret to aged care happiness

  1. Mary Kim Smith August 27, 2014 at 11:15 pm #

    Great look at well-being and the critical connection between elders, staff, and family care partners. Becoming an “extended family” by having the opportunity to develop close relationships with others is an effective antidote to depression. Culture Change in the care of elders and more specifically through a focus on the Domains of Well Being as implemented by the Eden Alternative have established efficacy in improving quality of life for all involved. Thank you for your reseach.

Leave a Reply