Long-term care's fear factor

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Emily Mongan
Emily Mongan

If you've been keeping up-to-date with McKnight's Daily Editor's' Notes you'll know that we not only nominated a long-term care-friendly presidential candidate earlier this month — we received his full platform from him.

Former LeadingAge CEO and President Larry Minnix's potential presidential platform includes an initiative called “Young and Old Alike!” that would put high school graduates to work on public service projects — including volunteering in nursing homes — before they received scholarships or funding for college.

Even if we don't see Minnix throw his hat into the (increasingly surreal) ring this election cycle, the initiative is a good idea for several reasons. The program could likely help satisfy long-term care's ongoing volunteer conundrum, for one.

At the same time, bringing young people in to volunteer could help resolve another issue facing LTC, one that is flying lower under the radar than staffing or regulations but is no less troublesome: fear.

I recently spoke with a 100-year-old nursing home volunteer who admitted that until she came to the facility to volunteer, she was fearful of the facilities (her story will appear in the April issue of McKnight's Long-Term Care News). At a convention last fall, an administrator shared with me one of the biggest misconceptions plaguing the industry: that nursing homes are a place to die, rather than a place to live.

That notion can breed fear across the board, from the students who are the future of the healthcare workforce to the consumers faced with the difficult decision of moving a parent into a nursing home.

Not everyone develops a fearful opinion of nursing homes, of course. Many people (myself included) get an introduction to nursing homes early on, via family members who require post-acute care or through volunteer projects with church or scouting groups. But for those who haven't, there's a trend brewing that may help curb long-term care's “fear factor.”

I read recently about the Frontiers in Human Aging program at the University of California-Los Angeles. The class teaches college freshmen about topics on aging, including health, finances and ageism, in an effort to break down some of the stigmas surrounding old and spark their interest in a career in eldercare.

The class continues outside of the classroom, with a requirement that the teenage students spend 20 hours volunteering with seniors. It might not seem like much, but the program's efforts seem to be working.

One student told Kaiser Health News that the class helped her appreciate her own grandparents better. Another asked a visiting geriatrician if the career ever got him down, since a major part of the job is watching people decline.

“Nobody lives forever and nobody should live forever,” the geriatrician responded. “Death is part of the human experience.”

Some students across the country are taking the concept behind UCLA's program up a notch, by moving into nursing homes and assisted living facilities and providing companionship and entertainment to the residents.

By introducing young people to the world of long-term care, be it through a full-blown volunteer program or just by welcoming a Girl Scout troop in to decorate cookies with residents, providers can combat fear of their facilities and open a dialogue between kids and their families that may help ease the transition when a loved one needs to move into a nursing home.

Volunteer programs and education initiatives like UCLA's could even plant the seeds that might inspire some of those young people to pursue a career in the field one day, and help remedy LTC's ever-present staffing crisis.

While it might be hard to see the concrete benefits of such programs until they've actually been designed and implemented, providers should give them some thought. The positive impact they can have on people of all ages' opinions of LTC is unmistakable.

Changing just one person's outlook could benefit your facility — and that's a message I'm sure our ideal President Minnix would approve of.

Emily Mongan is Staff Writer at McKnight's. Follow her @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.