Health Fitness

Meet the GlamourGals: These med students spend their free time painting seniors’ nails

White Coat Black Art26:30Manicures by med students

The seniors at a Waterloo, Ont., retirement residence are feeling great — and looking it, too — thanks to a group of medical students who provide a monthly pampering.

“They still really value getting their nails done or their makeup done. And you can see the smiles on their faces,” Harleen Chahal, a second-year medical student at McMaster University, told White Coat, Black Art host Brian Goldman.

“I remember there was one lady who was like, ‘I can’t wait to show my granddaughters how my nails look.'”

For one Saturday of every month, 15 medical students from McMaster University’s Waterloo campus, known as the GlamourGals, spend their morning doling out make-overs and manicures to the residents of Chartwell Terrace on the Square Retirement Residence.

It’s facilitated by GlamourGals Foundation, a U.S.-based non-profit with the mission to connect young people and seniors. Chahal founded the first Canadian chapter in August 2023. The McMaster medical students pay an annual fee and get supplies from the organization.

There’s only so much the GlamourGals can do because they’re not licensed. But they file and paint nails, sweep on blush, and apply foundation. That’s more than enough for Elizabeth Payne. 

The GlamourGals show up every month to spend time with the residents. (Brian Goldman/CBC)

She moved into Chartwell Terrace after her husband died and has been there for five years. Payne says living in a retirement residence has created a disconnect between her and her family. 

She recalls getting manicures regularly when she lived near a spa.

“I missed that being here,” she said. “Transportation is always a biggie. When you’re in a wheelchair, you try to go somewhere, you have to book a van a week ahead and it’s a hassle.”

So when the GlamourGals visit, she lines up early to get her makeover.

“I really appreciate them. I hope you’re getting lots of credit on their transcripts,” Payne said. 

Combating loneliness 

Chahal, who is Punjabi, grew up close to her grandparents. She remembers doing her grandmother’s nails, while her grandmother told her childhood stories of growing up in India. 

“I remember the first time I started volunteering in retirement homes. I was in the fifth grade. And I remember thinking it was such a strange concept for elderly individuals to kind of just live by themselves,” she said.

2023 report by the National Institute on Ageing found 58 per cent of Canadians 50 and older have experienced loneliness, while 40 per cent are socially isolated.

A man shows off his freshly filed nails.
Resident Terry Oleskiw, 80, shows off his nails. (Brian Goldman/CBC)

Since Terry Oleksiw, 80, moved into the retirement home two years ago, he’s missed the social life he had before. He doesn’t get many visits from his children, as two of the three live in B.C. But he loves the conversation when the GlamourGals visit to file his nails.

“The place is lit up and there’s more chatter,” said Oleksiw. “There’s a magic about the youth, the vitality … it’s almost a [spiritual] thing. There’s a connection. There’s the human touch.”

Medical student Emily Zhang says creating that intimacy and connection is the aim with GlamourGals. And it goes both ways. 

“I think what I got out of it is being able to hear a lot of people’s different lived experiences, and being more empathetic towards that,” she said.

Chahal says she has seen the difference that kind of connection can make with her own grandparents, and she wants to extend that to others. 

“I could provide them that level of emotional support and just care. And I wanted to do that for other people in that community that might not have had that as well.”

A young woman paints the nails of an older lady.
McMaster University medical student Emily Zhang does 98-year-old Marie Galloway’s nails. (Brian Goldman/CBC)

Improving patient interactions 

For Chahal, GlamourGals is a way to give back to the community. 

“I feel like as med students in this community, we kind of take from the community. We show up to patients’ appointments and we’re like, ‘Hey, can we just be involved in your care?’ You can’t really give much there,” she said.

“I felt a little bit uneasy almost about just taking so much from the community. So I wanted to do a community service sort of action and GlamourGals seemed perfect.”

As she moves further into the medical field, she understands she’s not going to be able to spend this kind of time with patients. 

But she hopes her experience as a GlamourGal doesn’t just help the seniors she interacts with monthly. She wants it to improve how she helps patients in the future. 

“I don’t think a lot of us regularly have conversations with elderly individuals and learn those sorts of communication skills, and I’m already seeing those soft skills that I’m learning here, being useful in my rotations and potentially when I’m a doctor as well.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *