Eat, sleep, medicine, pain, stop.

These are some of the key words at the heart of a pilot project at a retirement village in Perth, teaching simple hand signs to elderly Australians to help improve quality of life.

Twenty signs strongly influenced by Auslan have been selected, covering the words most important for health, safety and family interactions.

A close up photo of two elderly people's hands as they use sign language.

People at a Perth retirement home are part of a pilot program to learn simple hand signs.(

ABC News: Armin Azad

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Edith Cowan University Honorary Senior Research Fellow Barnard Clarkson said choosing the initial signs for the project was a challenge.

“We’ve been working with care workers, some medical staff, and here at the retirement centre, trying to identify groups of words that would work best for people.”

COVID-19 another curveball for people with hearing loss

The Qsign project is a collaboration between Better Hearing Australia WA, Edith Cowan University (ECU), and Brightwater Care Group, and aims to tackle the communication issues among older people that make interactions difficult.

A woman with grey hair and purple classes, wearing a scarf and a black shirt, demonstrates a hand sign.

Better Hearing Australia (WA) chair Barbara Alcock says alongside sign language, making sure you face people and make eye contact when talking is also important.(

ABC News: Jessica Warriner

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The Garvan Institute of Medical Research estimates more than 50 per cent of Australians over 65, and 75 per cent of Australians over 70 suffer from hearing loss.

For these Australians, the COVID-19 pandemic threw yet another curveball.

“If someone puts their hand in front of their face and keeps speaking, you often think, ‘what’s going on?””

“Things have been made worse during COVID-19 when staff are wearing masks preventing lip-reading, and socially distancing which reduces the prospect of clear communication.

“[It] made the project even more important,” he said.

‘Anything to be more direct is helpful’

Retiree John Durham is one of the participants, and said adding signs to communication had the potential to ease tension in conversation.

Both his wife and daughter are partly hard of hearing, and he said adapting conversations to include signs and facing people had become ‘fairly automatic’.

Sign language learner John Durham

John Durham believes older people can benefit from learning hand signs.(

ABC News: Jessica Warriner

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“I think anything to be a little bit more direct, a little bit more simple, is always helpful,” he said.

Mr Durham said teaching signs to older people in particular was especially useful.

“Especially when you’re in a group, you can’t hear what’s going on.”

Staff and families to get on board

Brightwater chief executive Jennifer Lawrence said it was exciting to see the program piloted with some of the retirement village residents.

Two elderly woman write notes.

Residents at a retirement village in Perth are taking part in the pilot program.(

ABC News: Jessica Warriner

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“If successful, we can certainly see how this could be adapted for our aged care home,” she said.

“Many of the people we support have hearing issues, and by teaching them and our staff some key and easy-to-learn signs, it could make an enormous difference in their ability to communicate easily.”

A woman with grey hair smiles and points to her hand, as she demonstrates a sign to her class.

Sign language could also be taught to staff in aged care homes.(

ABC News: Jessica Warriner

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Dr Clarkson said the ability to recognise key signs would not only be useful for aged care residents with significant hearing issues, but everyone, regardless of ability.

“We expect the 20 keyword signs in conjunction with spoken language will be advantageous for staff communication in reducing frustration too,” he said.

“We can also foresee families adopting some signs from our displays and videos.”

Next step is normalising signing

Dr Clarkson said the grand vision was to take the project Australia-wide.

A man in a blue shirt and black jacket stands in front of a room of people, who are blurry in the background.

ECU Honorary Senior Research Fellow Barnard Clarkson wants to see signing in aged care homes “normalised”.(

ABC News: Armin Azad

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“We expect this project could have important benefits for aged care facilities across Australia,” he said.

For now, the next step in the project is trialling the signs with different groups of elders in a variety of settings.

Someone holds a small book of hand signs, indicating signs for eat and drink.

It is hoped the number of hand signs being taught to participants will grow over time.(

ABC News: Jessica Warriner

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“We know some carers in care homes already do a little bit of signing — we’d like to get it normalised, and to have say 20 or 30 signs that people start with, and improve as they need to later,” he said.

Communication beyond signs

Better Hearing WA chair Barbara Alcock has been facilitating sign learning with the retirement village group, and said beyond learning signs, there were simple things everyone could do to help people around them with communication.

“[Face people], I can’t overemphasise how important that is,” she said.

“For those of us with hearing loss, if we’re not making eye contact, we often just don’t hear what’s being said.

A woman with grey hair facing away from the camera gives a thumbs up.

Barbara Alcock believes eye contact is vital.(

ABC News: Jessica Warriner

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“If it’s harder and harder to be part of a conversation, you then withdraw.

“If people are making eye contact and they’re including the older person in the conversation, it’s much better for them, and they’ll want to be with their family more often.”

Posted , updated 

‘Eat. Sleep. Pain. Stop.’ The hand signs improving the lives of older Australians
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