Lessons for LTC providers — with students as the teachers

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Emily Mongan
Emily Mongan

A journalist friend of mine who covers education in a relatively big college town recently took to social media to bemoan her fate: another school year was starting, which meant she was assigned another story on freshmen moving into the dorms.

And I don't blame her for her frustration. While moving into the dorms is undoubtedly one of the biggest days of a college student's life, to an outsider looking in it's not exactly groundbreaking stuff.

Students show up with their laundry baskets and identical Target-brand shower caddies. Parents take photos. Parents leave. Students must now figure out how to do laundry and wake themselves up for school all on their own.

But there's another back-to-school story out there, one that's fairly unique but slowly becoming more common. That's the story of college students eschewing the typical choice of dorm or apartment for a room in a nursing home or senior living facility.

We've covered this story before, but in true beginning-of-the-school-year fashion, I believe there are some lessons providers can glean from students who have made the jump into a living situation where few in their age group have gone before.

Take the case of Haley Jenkins, the Drake University student whose move into an Iowa continuing care retirement community both McKnight's and McKnight's Senior Living covered back in January. Jenkins, a vocal performance major, spent the spring semester living at the community rent-free in exchange for two performances a month.

In a March blog post, Jenkins reflected on her experience living at the facility. Unsurprisingly, the experience triggered Jenkins' interest in the impact music can have on older adults with memory loss, which she noted “might possibly be something I want to continue after graduation.”

In an industry that's struggling to recruit and retain a younger workforce, that statement shouldn't be taken lightly. These intergenerational experiences, even those not as long-term as Jenkins', could be a solid way of sparking young adults' interest in long-term care.

One New England college student took Jenkins' experience a step further this summer. He participated in a program where he lived not with residents of a local skilled nursing facility, but as one.

For 10 days, University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine student Joshua Allen participated in a project called “Learning by Living Nursing Home Immersion Project,” where he experienced life as an older nursing home resident would. He took on the care needs of someone who has had a stroke, requiring staff to transfer him from his bed to a wheelchair. Staff also had to help him bathe and use the toilet, and provide him meals of pureed food.

The results? Allen, a future physician, discovered the “embarrassing” aspects of the experiment made him more mindful about the patients he'll one day care for.

“I have emerged from this project learning it is easy to take dignity for granted,” Allen wrote in an opinion piece for the Bangor Daily News. “Age is much more abstract than I realized, and I now know to look for the person that is behind every pair of eyes, no matter how old or ill they appear.”

Sounds to me like the immersion program may work to remedy the shortage of physicians specializing in geriatrics, which is only expected to get worse as times goes on.

These programs pairing students with long-term care settings have an impact on the students and their future career goals; that's to be expected. But the positive impact these arrangements can have on residents and the facilities has been documented as well. They can foster intergenerational relationships that provide benefits such as fighting dementia, relieving loneliness and regulating seniors' blood pressure.

So this back-to-school season, look beyond the expected if you're seeking new ways to breathe life into your facility. There might be a college student out there looking to do the same.

Follow Emily Mongan @emmongan.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.