Getting older doesn’t mean you cannot live life to the fullest. However, when you are in the most northern part of Australia, accessing necessary healthcare information and tools can be difficult. A team of dedicated clinicians and researchers is making sure that older Torres Strait Islanders can spend their golden years ageing well.
Ageing brings change, including to our bodies and minds. Studies have shown that the risk of dementia is three to five times higher in Aboriginal communities than in the general population in people aged 45 and over, with a similar trend emerging in the Torres Strait. Older Torres Strait Islanders also have higher rates of vascular risk factors, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which increase the risk of dementia. While the statistics around ageing and life expectancy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are worrying, researchers and clinicians are determined to make a positive impact and support Torres Strait Islanders to age well.
JCU Associate Professor Eddy Strivens, who is the Clinical Director of Aged Care Services in the Cairns and Hinterland Health and Hospital Service, started Geriatric outreach clinical services to the Torres Strait in 1996. With his strong commitment to excellence in clinical service delivery, Dr Strivens identified the need to combine his clinical work with evidence-based research to ensure clinical services were culturally appropriate and relevant to people in the Torres Strait.
The Healthy Ageing Research Team (HART) was developed from his work and has been combining research and clinical services in the Torres Strait since 2011. The team now includes clinical neuropsychologist and JCU research fellow Dr Sarah Russell, senior medical officer Dr Gavin Miller, clinician and researcher Rachel Quigley, and Torres Strait Aged Care Assessment Team coordinator Betty Sagigi.
With a background in physiotherapy, Rachel’s abiding love of working with older people drives her to empower local communities.
“It’s Far North Queensland, it’s our community and it’s our people,” she says. “It’s important that we know how much dementia is up there so we can then educate people about dementia and we can advocate for those people to be able to support their loved ones better, so they can care for them in community rather than send them to nursing homes in Cairns, which is away from their land and their community.”
One of the pressing issues for the team was identifying suitable cognitive assessment tools that were culturally appropriate for older Torres Strait Islanders, as many existing assessments failed to consider the influence of culture, language and education on performances.
“We looked at the Kimberley Indigenous Cognitive Assessment, also known as KICA,” Rachel says. “We initially validated a screen that was appropriate for Far North Queensland and specifically for the Torres Strait. Now we are validating the full version of the KICA-cog for the Torres Strait as part of our current project.”
HART’s rolling engagement in the Torres Strait has led them to form strong relationships and build the capacity of local communities. Working in partnership with Diai Luffman and the rest of the Post-Acute, Rehab and Assessment Team on Thursday Island, they are currently researching the prevalence of dementia and issues of ageing across the Torres Strait.
“It’s about reciprocity and giving,” Rachel says. “Participation in the study is optional. They can still be seen by a geriatrician even if they don’t want to participate in the study. It’s definitely a whole community approach.”
The ultimate outcome for HART will be community empowerment to care for the elderly. The next project will focus on developing a framework for ageing well in the Torres Strait.This will include looking at factors that are protective against dementia, such as a traditional diet rich in fish and Omega-3 fatty acids, and people’s connections to land, culture and community. While working in a remote area is not without its difficulties, the people who form HART are determined to make a difference for Torres Strait Islanders.
“We have a passion for working with the elderly,” Rachel says. “You go in and speak to these people and they’ve lived such amazing lives. I feel honoured to listen to them and have that window into lives that were so different.”
If you want to make a difference for people and communities in rural and remote areas, discover more about JCU’s College of Medicine and Dentistry. The College has a strong focus on social justice and humanitarian issues, as well as a passion for innovation and a commitment to excellence. If you want more information about the project, contact Sarah Russell at Sarah.Russell6@jcu.edu.au
Feature image: Eddie Strivens