How to do it ... Professional development

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Dementia care is an ever-changing discipline that requires a long-term commitment to training and staff development. Approached sensibly, a strong program will pay dividends far down the road. Experts give tips here on how to best prepare staff to care for residents with Alzheimer's disease or other dementias.

Tap into resources locally, and beyond. Some of them can be found in nearby community colleges or universities, or conferences hosted by trade groups and professional associations, says Juliet Holt Klinger, senior director of dementia care at Brookdale Senior Living.

“The best workforce development solutions are designed to offer short, interactive sessions that engage students and can be accessed on their own timelines and at their own pace — even from home — minimizing time away from residents and increasing productivity,” adds Mollie Condra, vice president at HealthStream. “The post-acute care workforce now has access to online training and competency assessment solutions on par with what the acute care industry has been using for years.” 

Consider programs that provide continuing education credits in dementia care and geriatric nursing, such as the University of Iowa School of Nursing and the Alzheimer's Association, whose online individual certification program — essentiALZ® — provides recognition for knowledge of quality dementia care practices, Klinger adds.

Dementia care is a specialized discipline, so choose training accordingly.

“Facilities that provide care for patients with dementia must have a comprehensive education program that provides not only training and education about Alzheimer's and dementia disease processes, but instructor-led training sessions in which scenarios can be presented and/or real life situations discussed among staff,” says Jim Triandiflou, CEO of Relias Learning.

Employees can enrich residents' sense of self and well-being by embracing evidence-based practices such as validation therapy and individualized activity programs, adds Stella Hatcliffe, professional education director at the Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging. 

“If organizations aren't doing differential training and special skills training, then they're missing the boat,” adds Klinger. “Knowing how to prompt and cue and lead purposeful activities, for example, isn't something you can pick up in a book.” 

Dementia care is not a quick study, and staff can easily be overwhelmed. Jan Wilson, vice president of learning design and outcomes at Redilearning, believes some organizations rush through staff development.

“While we as an industry may do a reasonable job on getting caregivers ready to tackle caring for dementia residents, it's easy to apply a ‘bolus' approach, which as an educator, makes one wonder if they can absorb or apply everything we try to throw at them at the start of their careers,” she says.

Adds Klinger: “One misconception is that everyone can just do it, or sit through a week of orientation and they are good to go. Too much emphasis on information about plaques and tangles and the disease process doesn't really help. We believe that simply training about the clinical aspects of the disease is not enough.”

Prepare for an investment of time and money. Quality continuing education, ongoing development and reward systems can keep a dementia care program vibrant when staff is supported and feels valued for the challenging work they provide, according to Wilson. One of the biggest mistakes any provider can make is “taking shortcuts by not giving it the budget and staff hours it deserves,” adds Klinger.

Accept that dementia care is always evolving, and training and education are a career-long process. 

“Don't trust that what worked yesterday will work today,” cautions Debi Damas, RN, senior product manager for Relias Learning's senior care division. 

“Professional development is a dynamic process,” adds Klinger. “The body of knowledge is changing all the time and caregivers need to stay abreast of it. Every time I'm with someone living with dementia, I learn something new and I've been doing this for 30 years.”

Mistakes to avoid

Taking shortcuts. Dementia care is not a quick study, and staff can easily be overwhelmed.

Failing to commit to long-term investment in training and education. The body of knowledge about dementia care is still in its infancy.

Over-emphasizing the “science” over the “art” of dementia care.


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