Fighting isolation with manicures, mud masks
MARIA IQBAL Maria Iqbal is a Hamilton-based reporter at The Spectator covering aging. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sisters Lizmarie and Stacey Correia were young when their grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. But they still remember their mother regularly painted her nails and took her out for a haircut. “When her hair started turning white, she’d look in the mirror and she wouldn’t recognize herself,” said Lizmarie. So, she’d ask her daughters — the Correias’ mother and aunt — to colour her hair to get back some of her identity. Their other grandma loved getting her hair done, too, because it made her feel “confident and dignified as she aged,” said Stacey. Having someone take the time to do that can boost self-worth, and be a reminder that “you’re still beautiful, you’re still valued,” said the fourth-year honours life sciences student at McMaster University. Seeing how their mother and aunt took care of their grandmothers made the sisters want to do the same for other seniors. In 2019, the Correias were looking for a way to get involved in the community. The sisters love doing makeovers and their grandmothers played an important role in their lives. They thought, why not give seniors a chance to glam up and try to reduce isolation? That’s when they learned about Glamour Gals, a nonprofit which sees high school and post-secondary students give senior home residents free makeovers. The group has chapters across the U.S., and the Correias founded the first Canadian chapter at McMaster. “The makeovers are the tool ... the main point is having these conversations with seniors,” Stacey said. They brought a group of volunteers to Caroline Place retirement home to offer manicures and facials. The home’s recreation manager said the residents enjoyed talking to the students and getting the spa treatment, noting it brought out some residents who didn’t attend regular programming. “It really brightens their day,” said Heather Cozens. “It made all the residents feel great about themselves.” In one case, “the resident didn’t want the mud mask, so she asked if she could put it on the student,” she added. Lizmarie, who’s in her third year of political science, met a woman who told her about her upbringing in Hamilton and her husband who was a veteran. Sometimes, the stories can last hours, the sisters said. When COVID hit, the Glamour Gals’ meetups stopped. Personal care took a hit across senior homes as staff tried to close any avenues that could bring in the virus. Staffing shortages meant residents didn’t have access to regular showers, let alone hair and nail care. The Glamour Gals started writing monthly letters to the residents instead, and sometimes they wrote back. They also put together a 45-page magazine complete with crosswords and recipes to drop off. But Correias hope soon they’ll be able to come back in person. “Personal care is fundamental in many ways to who we are and how we feel about ourselves,” said Brenda Vrkljan, professor of occupational therapy at McMaster University. It’s not just about getting hair and nails done, but spending time with another person, which is something that’s “a big miss right now.” “It’s one thing to have a conversation by Zoom; it’s another to have someone touch you,” she said. Vrkljan noted that research shows grooming and self-care — even something as simple as getting dressed — can help patients feel better, which can get overlooked in the “mad dash to get through the (task) checklist.” “Anything we can do to make people feel better is important,” Vrkljan added. “We should be moving to that.” Courtney Kennedy, an occupational therapist at Hamilton Health Sciences, said personal care should be considered a basic right. “Something as simple as having their hair done, could have a beneficial ripple effect on other aspects of health and well-being, including a sense of empowerment, dignity and increased motivation for social participation,” she said in an email. The frailty researcher for the GERAS Centre said self-care is especially important for older adults to “maintain their sense of self and identity.” After launching the McMaster chapter, the Correias got in touch with students at other Canadian universities to help them start their own Glamour Gals groups. They hope to continue that work when conditions allow. For them, it’s the residents that make it all worthwhile. “It’s so beautiful to see that they actually want us there and they want somebody to talk to,” Stacey said. “They want somebody to share their stories with.”