Technology and the elderly are not usually seen as natural companions.
However, Swinburne University, based in Melbourne, Australia, is debunking the myth, using technology to enable healthier ageing, particularly in Aged Care Facilities.
Swinburne’s Director of Development, Belinda Collins, tells us how COVID-19 has helped expedite the project and how the University has adapted its fundraising activities to cope with months of lockdown.
Q. Since its establishment more than 100 years ago Swinburne has grown from being a technical college to a world recognised research institution. How relevant is the work that Swinburne does in terms of current events?
A. At Swinburne we believe that technology is often part of the solution and COVID-19 has expedited the rate at which we’ve moved to using technology in lots of parts of our lives. I think we’ve all been so touched by the plight of older people through COVID. During lockdowns, many of us had, and in some cases still have, grandparents and parents who are in aged care, or who are trapped in their homes and not able to see or connect with loved ones, which is really quite devastating. Swinburne has looked at how we can use technology to improve a challenging situation and create a better quality of life for people, so that’s a really big focus for us at the moment.
Q. How is technology being used to assist the elderly?
A. We’re running a telehealth programme for older Australians in residential aged care, providing psychological services. The demand has been really strong and it’s proving to be really successful and effective. It’s run by an incredible leader at Swinburne, Professor Sunil Bhar who is a professor of psychological sciences. He launched the programme in May this year and he’s been astounded by the demand. What has been terrific is that it doesn’t matter if you are in Melbourne or a very rural or remote part of Australia, the telehealth service can support you. The other benefit of the project is that it’s training the next generation of psychologists, giving them experience in how to support older people through difficult times. We’ve had to overcome our own stereotypes that telehealth consultations could not feasibly be delivered in residential aged care. We’ve found this is eminently feasible and, once again, found that technology can be the solution. This will continue well beyond the COVID period as a model for providing mental health care to our vulnerable older people in residential aged care. But we need further investment to be able to scale it up and to support people from different cultural backgrounds, which is an important thing for us to be able to do.
Q. Because of ongoing COVID outbreaks, the city of Melbourne endured months of strict lockdowns. What has that meant for the staff and students at Swinburne?
A. We’ve all been working from home since the 14th of March, and it’s been phenomenal to see the way our university has kept running from home. I’m proud to be part of Swinburne. Obviously, there’s been a really big impact on our students and that’s been really hard to experience and see. But we’ve always been strong in online learning and that’s really ramped up through COVID. Everyone has been really concerned with making sure we support our students and get them through.
Q. What has your Advancement team done to ensure that students are being looked after in these difficult times?
A. We had to change our fundraising focus significantly this year, and the most important thing for us is making sure our students get through. A lot of them are young people who rely on jobs in restaurants and cafes and bars, which have been closed until just recently. If they’re Australian students, they might have moved from the country down to Melbourne to study or moved away from their family home for the first time. For our international students, their families have put their faith in our country to allow them to come here and be educated.
The most important thing for us this year was to do everything we could to raise money to support the students through this time. Swinburne put its own resources in along with the Victorian State Government and many others. And we were really excited that our community, from our council through to our executive team, our staff, other students, our alumni and donors, contributed over a million dollars to support our students.
Q. It’s been an incredibly difficult year for universities, particularly in Australia due to international students not being able to travel here. What has it reinforced about the role that universities, like Swinburne, play in the community and our economies?
A. If you think about what Australia needs to move out of COVID and to adjust to what the future looks like, we are going to be very dependent as a nation on heavy investment into R&D, whether it is into how can we provide better care for vulnerable older Australians, how can we push forward with new advanced manufacturing technologies or incredible opportunities in health technology, just to name a few. It’s universities who are called on to do the research that’s going to underpin all this success in the future and, as a nation, we need to be much more deliberate about understanding that it’s universities that fuel this growth and innovation. I believe as we move forward we will see a lot more philanthropic support coming to universities as we get better at describing the critical role that we play. I sometimes think that the community doesn’t understand the research and development role that universities play. A lot of the community still think that all universities do is educate students and that alone. The impact that we have on the community in the way we drive innovation forward and help shape the future is critical. And, as we get better at communicating that, investment into universities will continue to grow.
Q. Are there any changes in the world of fundraising that you’ve seen in the last six months that have surprised you?
A. The way that we’ve all been able to engage with our supporters virtually, rather than people coming to campus and events, has been phenomenal. I would say that my team and I have stronger relationships with our donors this year than we’ve ever had. It’s been really important for us is to just ring and check in with people and have really meaningful conversations. We have all experienced a really challenging year and it’s been important to us to ensure our donors are all right. We are in the business of relationships. And that’s actually been more powerful and impactful than inviting them to an event where maybe you might get to see them for five minutes and do a bit of a wave across the room. So, I think that’s been one of the surprising and terrific things to learn that we can actually develop and sustain really meaningful relationships with donors without even having to leave home.
It’s incredible to think that in the past we would have travelled for an hour across town, polluting the environment, to meet with someone for half an hour and then go back and do it all over again. Productivity has been enhanced, relationships strengthened and the environment protected through better working online. Nothing will replace seeing donors in person and being back together again, but certainly this online way of working will continue for quick check ins.
Q. COVID-19 has forced many organisations to rethink the way they operate. What opportunities do you see for you and your team going forward?
A. I think that universities are the best kept secret in Australia and the work that they do is just critical. In higher education you find that behind every door there is someone working on something extraordinary that can help shape the future.
The opportunity before us is really to engage our donors in the big priorities for the university and articulate our role as an engine of growth. As an institution, we provide both the R&D and human capital (through the education of students), that will drive national growth.
The ability to tell our stories and engage with hearts and minds is critical. We need to help shape the narrative and national understanding that the role universities play is critical. It’s then up to us, as fundraisers, to find the people who care about and are willing to invest in our particular priority areas. Communications is one of the most important tools that we have and as we get better at articulating and telling our stories our donors will come on that journey with us.
Q. What have you learned about yourself during COVID-19?
A. I’ve grown and learned in so many ways through this period. I’ve found that I can live with a lot less external stimulation than I thought I needed. I was someone who was probably always out and about doing things. But it’s been great to find things that can be meaningful and inspiring within a five kilometre radius. And I think we’ve all learned how important people and connections and relationships are.
- Established in 1908, Swinburne was founded on the premise that its work would be shaped by industry and community needs.
- Swinburne is a world-ranked university leading the way in innovation, industry engagement and social inclusion.
- Swinburne’s research strengths are in astronomy and physics, engineering, materials science, computer science and information technology; design and innovation. It also has substantial capability and research excellence in neuroscience, mental health and the humanities and social sciences.