Faculty-Led Programs Blog

Natalie Schultz: Discovering the Keys to Health and Wellness in Costa Rica

Summer 2024 

This experience truly opened my eyes to how lifestyle and values can impact someone’s long term health and happiness. This past summer I had the opportunity to study abroad in Costa Rica for 11 days. This trip had an interprofessional focus to it, which allowed for us Nursing students to work closely with graduate OT students. I went into this trip having very little understanding as to what the role of the OT was and how that profession intertwines with my future nursing profession, but after developing activities together that closely worked with the health and wellness needs of the populations we worked with, I grew a greater understanding and appreciation for the OT field. I do not believe that I would be able to get this deep of an understanding about how these two professions work together had I not gone on this trip.

Going into this trip, I expected that I was going to learn a lot about the culture in Costa Rica, but I did not expect to take away as much as I did. We had the opportunity to visit many different senior centers and senior living facilities. The healthcare system in Costa Rica is vastly different than in the US, and although we did not work in any hospitals or clinics, these senior facilities provided great insight onto the differences in healthcare systems. The US works more closely with private insurances and practices, which is why it is so difficult for many to afford healthcare, but in Costa Rica, it is more government funded. We went to a developmental day care center that was funded by the government, providing those with disabilities a place to receive proper hygiene, food, and activities that support their needs for five days a week, approximately eight hours a day. We had the chance to see how different healthcare professions worked together to support the health and safety of the participants of this facility. After this we interacted with residents at a senior living facility that was also government funded, rather than the privately funded that I am used to here in the US. In this facility, patients lived in an almost dorm style living, where they had one to two roommates in each room. They used their rooms to nap, and then spent the rest of their day interacting with other residents. Everyone in the facility seemed both happy and healthy. We had the opportunity to practice nursing skills like taking vital signs and blood glucose readings. We were able to meet with the nurse and discuss her typical routine that she performed. A common theme that we understood from many of these facilities was that the nurses typically only work till 7pm, with CNA’s working throughout the night, which I found very interesting compared to what we are used to. We then got the chance to work with seniors at senior day centers, where we collaborated with the OT students on activities that could be beneficial for improving their fine and gross motor movements. Although there were times where I felt a little worried due to the language barrier, I was able to overcome this and use my resources to interact with the residents. This experience definitely helped to prepare me for when I may come across language, or other, barriers in my actual nursing practice.

Once we had experience with the residents of the living facilities and members of the day centers, we had the opportunity to visit some centenarians of the blue zone. There are five blue zones around the world, where residents in the said area often live past the age of 100. We had the opportunity to meet some of them and ask questions about their lifestyle and their “secrets to well being.” One common theme we learned, is that surrounding yourself with a tight knit community who cares for you, is the secret to a long and healthy life. Having a tight knit community alongside of eating healthy and natural foods, having an every day purpose whether that is working or maintaining a garden, and staying active seemed to be the “secrets” we learned. One other big takeaway from the centenarians that I had was that money buys you nothing when it comes to longevity. None of them lived in a mansion, they had four walls and a roof, a family that helped care for them, and a smile on their faces.

I am more than grateful for the opportunity that I had to study abroad in Costa Rica. Not only did it truly grow my skills as a future nurse, but it made me a more well rounded person. I had experiences here that no clinical could teach me. I got to interact with healthy people and get their firsthand experience of how they were able to maintain their health and happiness through all of these years. If I could do it all again, I would without hesitation go back.