Tag Archives: Melbourne University

Three and a Half Inches Behind

Be nice to your children, they choose your nursing home


I was visiting a friend who has just moved into assisted care. This newly built aged care facility provides permanent care, dementia care, nursing services and palliative care and is a long way from the basic nursing homes my mother used to talk about. She believed the old saying, Be nice to your kids, they choose your nursing home.  

In the secure section’s tranquility room a small white haired woman snuggled under a soft covering watching laser light ‘stars’ dance on the ceiling. Bright eyes met mine and I sat beside her. She grabbed my hand and beamed at me. ‘Hello’, I said.’How are you?’

‘Three and a half inches behind’. I stroked her hand and spoke quietly for a while eventually saying, ‘I must go now. She patted my arm, ‘Three and a half inches behind’ she said with a smile. When I reached the door I heard a quiet, ‘I love you’.


For twenty-five years I’ve been a research volunteer with Melbourne University’s Womens’ Healthy Aging Project and have learnt a lot about, menopause, H.R.T, post menopause and lately, dementia and Alzheimers.

According to the current literature Dementia, also known in my mother’s day as senility, is a broad category of brain diseases that cause long term and often gradual decrease in the ability to think and remember clearly . So much so that a person’s daily functioning is affected.  The most common affected areas include memory, visual-spatial, language, attention and problem solving. Most types of dementia are slow and progressive. By the time the person shows signs of the disease, the process in the brain has been happening for a long time. At the moment there is no cure. Globally, dementia affects thirty-six million people and is on the increase. More people are living longer and dementia is becoming more common in the population as a whole.

Senility has been around for a long time. My mother often told me that when she was eighteen she was sent to look after her Gran who was senile and needed constant care. It was a daily struggle just to get Gran dressed. After fighting with her to get some sort of clothes on, Mum would try to put on Gran’s leather buttoned boots. Gran would clench her teeth and plant her foot on the floor. They would struggle for about half an hour before Mum finally got the boots on and buttoned. Mum would give her grandmother a bag of tangled pieces of string for her to unravel. It kept her busy all day. At night Mum would mix them all up again and hand the bag back to Gran the next day.  Only when her Gran was dressed and occupied could Mum escape to do her own chores.

Not every dementia patient is as difficult as Gran. They can be as sweet and lovely as Three and a Half Inches Behind. WHAP research has found that the story of each patient recorded in a book assists people to  understand how to help dementia patients  live as calm and enjoyable a life as possible.

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The new three story building that is home to my friend houses elderly people with physical and mental problems and is better than any luxurious Retirement Village I’ve ever seen. Large private rooms with an en-suite, wide hallways, comfortable lounges with aquariums and electric fireplaces complete with realistic flame effect. Friendly, caring staff. These facilities are a far cry from the urine smelling shared rooms of the nursing homes of my mother’s day.

lounge dining hair

I remember sitting next to eighty year old friend, Mickey when we flew through a violent storm in a tiny eight seater plane. After a particularly loud boom of thunder, she bent forward, put her fingers in her ears, closed her eyes and muttered her mantra, ‘Never a nursing home, Never a nursing home.’ Mickey would not have such a fear of being sent to a home if she had seen one of these new Aged Care Facilities today.

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But to get into one of these top class aged care facilities is still a trauma and, if you cannot get a government funded place, can cost the earth. I don’t know what the answer is, but I am so happy for my friend. Her physical condition has improved since being there and her mind is still as sharp as a tack.

Women’s Healthy Aging Project (WHAP) Celebration


Twenty-Five Years Celebration.

The Women’s Healthy Aging Project (WHAP) is a longitudinal study of over 400 randomly sampled Australian-born women.

In 1990, hairdressing scissors in my hand I beat my two small boys to the telephone. A voice asked if I would be willing to take part in a study run by Melbourne University into health issues confronting women. The decision to participate resulted in twenty-five years of belonging to an ethically sound, well researched project which took me on a journey of self discovery and knowledge.

Once a year I fast overnight, catch the Frankston train to Melbourne and tram to Royal Melbourne Hospital. After handing in a completed questionnaire, blood tests taken and breakfast over I am weighed, measured and the oral and written tests begin. Depending on what is being studied that particular year follow up x-rays or tests are sometimes required. However, I always felt that it revealed up previously hidden health information and that I was part of something larger than myself.

Most of the previous studies into heart disease etc are based on men. This is my opportunity to do something to help other women and I applaud Melbourne University for instigating and supporting this study into women’s health. Age has a way of creeping up on us.  I was amazed last time I was measured to discover I’ve lost an inch in height. That explains why the clothes line seems higher these days.


The 2nd June 2015 was the twenty-fifth anniversary of WHAP at the Mental Health Institute in Parkville. Associate Professor Cassandra Szoeke explained the health issues facing women in an easy to understand down-to-earth manner. Her lovely smile and obvious passion for research shone through as she told the room of volunteers about the project. I was amazed how it has grown. The data is now available worldwide to many PhD students from numerous countries studying a myriad of women’s health issues from diet, to cholesterol levels, mood swings, aging, the role of grand parenting in postmenopausal women’s cognitive health etc and they are finding this unique Australian study data invaluable. I believe it is now the longest running study of women’s health in the world.


During the twenty-five years I’ve also journeyed from VCE to PhD and was delighted to have the opportunity to talk to the current PhD students about their research and possible findings. What I learnt from them will be invaluable in the years to come.

Initially funding was granted for two years, then more was found and the project progressed on a general basis until the focus turned to menopausal women, HRT or no HRT. Then came post menopausal. Now WHAP studies in Australia aims to identify modifiable mid-life risk factors for the development of late-life cognitive decline, improve the understanding of dementia, and target early disease identification utilizing clinical, biomarker and health risk profiles.

These aims are fortified by the ability to leverage the considerable database on health, lifestyle and socio-demographics collected prospectively from 1990 to date. This is the first study with a comprehensive neuropsychological battery, over a decade of cognitive follow-up, with all participants being offered amyloid imaging from 2012, and prospective longitudinal data including clinical and physical measures and bio-bank samples from over 20 years prior.


I must admit that to have a pet scan to check for signs of amyloid, a protein that may result in Alzheimer’s disease, was scary. For the first time, I was hesitant about having this test, and could have refused if I so desired. However, on request I was immediately given all the details regarding the test, talked to my local doctor and decided to go ahead. I’m so glad I finally overcame my fear.

Being a WHAP volunteer has given me insights into women’s health issues and tools I can use to keep active and well as long as possible. That one phone call back in 1990 has led to an exciting journey. I will treasure the silver Melbourne University angel and certificate given to all the volunteers on this special anniversary of this study into women’s health, but honestly I feel I have gained far more than I have given.