Model trains helping people with dementia at Sunshine Coast aged care home

Model trains helping people with dementia at Sunshine Coast aged care home

Trains invoke fond memories of a bygone era for Sunshine Coast man Allan Lenham, who has dementia.

The 89-year-old lights up when he sees his aged care home’s model railway display.

“As kids we would get a half penny and go up and put it on the rail and the train would flatten it,” Mr Lenham said.

“Very much that was part of our childhood, and the cane trains would drop a load — they’d bring a load from down the valley.”

Mr Lenham’s aged care home had the model railway installed this year to keep residents engaged and connected.

“They’ve really done a wonderful job, but you can’t play with it,” Mr Lenham joked.

Wendy May says residents “light up” when they spend time with the model railway.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Amy Sheehan )

The miniature railway chugged to life as a pilot project between the Estia nursing home and Dementia Support Australia (DSA) after social isolation became an issue during COVID-19 restrictions.

The idea was sparked after an assessment of dementia patients at the facility, many of whom had a background working on railways.

Lifestyle coordinator Wendy May said the railway had a profound impact on residents.

“I believe this railway set is like a piece of glue that brings everybody together and that will keep bringing people together,” she said

“It’s an attraction within itself.”

Railway club onboard

The Sunshine Coast Model Railway Club has joined the project, driving the design of the tracks and surrounding landscape, which replicate the old township of Nambour, where most of the residents grew up.

Two men in blue and yellow shirts side train set
Steve Blackbourne and Paul Downes helped design and build the railway.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Amy Sheehan )

Club member Paul Downes said it took the volunteers a year to bring the railway to life.

“We wanted a diesel that represents a period of about the 1970s and 80s, and we’ve got the two steam locomotives, which are part of the layout,” Mr Downes said.

“Graham Booker was instrumental in the design of the bridges. He designed the Club Hotel, which required him taking photos of the actual building and then scaling it down.”

Man with gray beard and female carer beside model train set
Allan Lenham and Mary-Clare Maloney inspect the model railway.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Amy Sheehan )

“We didn’t know at the time but there is a resident here who actually at one staged owned that hotel.”

The residents meet once a week to watch the trains, and to engage with the model railway club as they do maintenance.

Filling a COVID gap

DSA team leader Mary-Clare Maloney said keeping residents engaged and connected had been more important than ever during the pandemic.

“Engagement has really been helpful in helping people to reduce that distress that they may be experiencing,” she said.

“It might actually help them with memory. It certainly helps with reminiscing and connecting with other people.”

Ms May said the home was still operating under tight infection protocols, which restricted visitor movement at the centre.

Close-up of model railway set
The model railway is designed to incorporate the old landscape of Nambour.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Amy Sheehan )

“At the moment, we can’t have families in common areas,” she said.

“Not many people have seen the railway, so when our restrictions lift more people can spend time around it. We will be doing that for sure.”

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