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Community Connections

Tribute to a life driven by love: Dr Sarah Cope’s legacy

Professor Elizabeth Beattie found a kindred spirit in former UC Assistant Professor Dr Sarah Cope. Both committed their time and energy to improving the quality of care provided to older people with dementia in residential aged care facilities.

Together, they formed a special partnership built on that common bond. It grew to a lasting friendship based on mutual respect, shared passions and ideologies around aged care.

Sarah passed away earlier this year, leaving an inspiring legacy for colleagues, loved ones and friends, who remember and honour her larger-than-life drive, devotion and passion.

Elizabeth is the Director of the Dementia Centre for Research Collaboration at the Queensland University of Technology’s (QUT) School of Nursing. She was Sarah’s supervisor, supporting her as she studied towards her Doctoral Degree.

Sarah received her Doctoral Degree in 2016 from QUT, before relocating to the University of Canberra as an Assistant Professor in Nursing with the Faculty of Health, School of Nursing and Midwifery.

According to her husband Ian, it was Sarah’s proudest achievement.

It all started with a conversation at a national dementia conference in Sydney in 2009, when Sarah sought advice from Elizabeth about future career options.

Elizabeth was immediately impressed by Sarah’s enthusiasm for the clinical work she was doing and her deep commitment to, and love of, working with older adults. Sarah’s concern was with people living with dementia in residential aged care settings; her care extended to the families of people living with dementia.

“She just shone when she talked about nursing and radiated a sincere desire to improve the quality of care and the quality of life of residents,” Elizabeth said.

Sarah was committed to making a difference. “She had a down-to-earth authenticity, and a million ideas that came rushing out all at once, delivered with a great smile,” Elizabeth said.

“She understood that undertaking further education was one path to improve the lives of people with dementia.”

It was obvious from the start that Sarah wanted her thesis to have a lasting impact.

“We initially connected over our strong shared concern about residential aged care facility residents with dementia, who develop changes in their mood and behaviour that then impact their comfort levels. Some residents become overactive, have difficulty being able to sit down and rest, get lost easily, and can get quite distressed,” said Elizabeth.

“My own research was focused in this topic area, and we had a natural and immediate ease in understanding why we both loved working with people with dementia, and why this clinical issue mattered to the quality of life of residents and needed to be researched further.”

As Sarah’s studies progressed, she developed confidence and independence in her own work. She gained a better understanding of her capabilities and went on after her graduation to new professional and personal heights. 

Despite the distance – Elizabeth was based in Brisbane and Sarah in Sydney – they made a point of touching base. Elizabeth says they routinely caught up by phone, email and Skype.

“We connected in person a few times a year at Queensland University of Technology doctoral events, dementia conferences, or when I was in Sydney for university work.

“Remembering this always makes me smile,” she said. “Apart from regular chats from our respective offices, I connected with Sarah in so many places. It was usually at the beginning or end of our busy days, when she was either in a cafè stop on the Great Western Highway, when she was driving around Sydney or parked under a tree on a side street, and I had pulled off the road en route to another meeting – usually also under a shady tree.”

Elizabeth says she was devastated when Sarah was diagnosed with the illness that ultimately resulted in her death at just 44.

“The immediate concern Sarah expressed when she spoke to me for the first time after her diagnosis was for her husband, Ian, and for her family after her death,” says Elizabeth.

“She spoke with a clear, strong voice and she told me she was dying. She said that all options had been exhausted, that it was all a terrible shock and not a dream.

“Her immense personal courage and compassion for others was humbling and inspirational.”

Elizabeth believes Sarah’s influence on her students at UC will be long lasting.

“I know she was a fine role model for her students. She has inspired some to think about working with older adults. Her legacy will accompany them throughout their professional and personal lives,” she said.

Elizabeth’s lasting memory of Sarah is as a gifted clinician and teacher, but uppermost in her mind is Sarah’s personality.

“She had a wicked sense of humour and we often shared a good laugh. She was humble, self-depreciating, generous and warm,” she said.

“It’s a privilege to have known Sarah and to be able to remember her in this way.”

Professor Elizabeth Beattie will deliver the Inaugural Dr Sarah Cope Memorial Lecture at the University of Canberra on Friday, 25 October, as friends, family, colleagues and students celebrate her life and work.

More information on the Dr Sarah Cope Memorial Fund is available here.

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