Guest Columns

Dementia units require full-time managers

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Allan Vann, Ed.D
Allan Vann, Ed.D

My wife, Clare, has been living in an assisted living residence for more than a year.  Aside from the onsite executive director, there are various other onsite administrators in charge of major departments. These staff members include directors of resident services, food services, recreation services, maintenance. Clare has Alzheimer's disease, so she lives in the ALR's separate 32-bed lockdown dementia unit named “Reflections.”

I am a retired public school principal. Sometimes I was the first person to arrive at my school in the morning and the last one out the door at night. When I was a principal and there was a very early morning activity involving children and teachers, such as a band rehearsal, with children and teachers arriving 90 minutes before school started, I was there.  When there were evening functions involving children and teachers, such as a play, I was there, even if it was 10 p.m. As the manager of my school, whenever there were children and teachers in the building, I felt that it was my responsibility to be there to observe and evaluate personnel and programs, and to be available to handle any emergencies that might occur.

I know that the various administrators at my wife's ALR most likely arrive very early on some days and stay very late on others.  Just as was true for me, however, most of their time onsite is during daytime hours. I view ALR management as similar to that of a school: Supervision and evaluation of personnel and programs/operations in their departments are the most important daily responsibilities for most, if not all, ALR administrators. 

During the time that Clare has been in Reflections, there have been occasions when individual staff members have not performed their jobs satisfactorily. In almost every instance, the unsatisfactory staff performance has been in the early morning hours before the unit director usually arrived, or in the evening hours after the unit director has usually left for the day.

Each time I have brought such instances to the attention of the Reflections unit director, or to the executive director, they have been dealt with properly. Aides have been reminded or likely reprimanded.  In addition, some aides have been transferred out of the unit.  However, that misses the larger issue, which is the need for daily supervision of staff and programs/operations in the dementia unit beyond the normal daytime working hours.

Clare has declined to the point where she needs daily assistance to some extent with virtually all of her activities of daily living. There have been times when Clare has been dressed in the same outfit two days in a row, dressed inappropriately for that day's weather, has been given someone else's clothing to wear, or has not been showered properly.  

Whenever I discovered such situations during my evening visits, I needed to wait until the next day to inform the unit director because he was already gone for the day. Sometimes the wait was several additional days because some Reflections aides work different days each week and even more days would pass before the director and aide were there at the same time. This is not how an administrator should supervise staff! 

Plus, how does an administrator periodically formally evaluate staff that work the majority of their hours when the director is not present to personally observe their interactions with residents on a daily basis?

The same problem exists with supervision of programs and operations in Clare's dementia unit. I visit with Clare after she has had her dinner and take her to a lounge in another part of the ALR until 7 p.m.  I take Clare back to her unit, reminding her of the activity she will have next according to the dementia unit monthly calendar.  However, too often I have discovered that the aide responsible for that program, such as Bingo, trivia game, sing-along, was not leading that program. Often, all the dementia residents were sitting in a dark room watching TV.  Once again, I cannot report that to the director until the next day. That's too late because Clare was unable to engage in her 7 p.m. program, which causes her anxiety.

Clare has been sundowning for several years. She usually actively engages in each of her activities, but during program transitions and “down times” she often misses me a lot and repeatedly asks aides where I am. As the day progresses, she often grows increasingly confused and agitated, missing me even more.  When the 7 p.m. program does not take place as scheduled, Clare's likelihood of sundowning increases. On some days I've received calls to please return to her ALR to calm her down.

If an administrator were present in the evening every night, the 7 p.m. programs would always take place.  If that program could not take place as planned on any given evening due to an unforeseen problem, the onsite administrator would quickly find a suitable replacement program and assign an aide to lead it so residents wouldn't all just be sitting around watching TV.  

It is the same with daily operations.  An onsite administrator walking around in the mornings would readily observe if residents' clean clothing is properly hung up or sitting in piles on closet floors, and easily notice other problems that could be quickly remedied.

Most of Clare's aides are very dedicated to helping residents, but some aides occasionally slack off knowing that there is no administrator present to observe and evaluate their behavior. For example, on quite a few occasions I have observed several aides talking among themselves far apart from, and with backs turned to, the residents they were supposed to be supervising.

One would think that ALR corporate management would want supervision of their dementia residents to be a top priority. These are their residents most likely to be taking a lot of daily medication, most likely to fall or wander and injure themselves or others, and most likely to be confused and possibly try to do something that they should not attempt to do. Dementia residents are often among the most physically and emotionally fragile ALR residents, those most in need of assistance. To reduce the risk of accidents and untoward incidents, ALR corporate management should want their dementia units to have a full-time administrator onsite to better ensure that aides are doing their jobs properly in the early morning and evening hours.

If impractical to provide 24/7 onsite management, a manager should be present at least from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. The bottom line: ALR corporate management should make sure that supervisors are onsite to supervise aides working with dementia residents during each of these 18 hours. 

Allan S. Vann, Ed. D., has written numerous articles about caregiving after his wife was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease in 2009. He is a retired school principal.

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