Model trains help people with dementia in the Sunshine Coast retirement home

Trains bring back fond memories of days gone by for Sunshine Coast man Allan Lenham, who suffers from dementia.

The 89-year-old beams when he sees the model railway of his retirement home.

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

“That was very much a part of our childhood, and the reed trains would drop a load — they would bring a load out of the valley.”

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

“They’ve really done a great job, but you can’t play with them,” Lenham joked.

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

The miniature train came to life as a pilot project between Estia Nursing Home and Dementia Support Australia (DSA) after social isolation became an issue during COVID-19 restrictions.

The idea came about after an evaluation of dementia patients at the facility, many of whom had backgrounds working on railroads.

Lifestyle coordinator Wendy May said the railroad had a major impact on residents.

“I believe this train set is like a piece of glue that brings everyone together and will continue to bring people together,” she said.

“It’s an attraction in itself.”

Railway club on board

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

Two men in blue and yellow shirts next to a train
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 to represent a period of roughly the 1970s and 1980s, and we have the two steam locomotives, which are part of the layout,” said Mr Downes.

“Graham Booker was instrumental in the design of the bridges. He designed the Club Hotel, which involved taking pictures of the actual building and then reducing it to size.”

Gray bearded man and female carer next to model train set
Allan Lenham and Mary-Clare Maloney inspect the model railway.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Amy Sheehan )

“We didn’t know it at the time, but there’s a resident here who owned that hotel at one point.”

The residents meet once a week to view the trains and to talk to the model railway club about maintenance.

Filling a COVID gap

DSA team leader Mary-Clare Maloney said it was more important than ever to keep residents engaged and connected during the pandemic.

“Involvement has been really helpful in helping people reduce the distress they may be experiencing,” she said.

“It can really help them with memory. It definitely helps with reminiscing and connecting with other people.”

Ms May said the house was still operating under strict infection protocols, which restricted visitor movement in the center.

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

“Right now we can’t have families in common areas,” she said.

“Not many people have seen the railway, so if our restrictions are lifted, more people can spend time on it. We certainly will.”

Leave a Comment