The combination of a caregiver shortage and a rapidly aging population has left senior living providers scrambling to figure out how to effectively recruit and retain staff. At the same time, many high school and college-aged students are unaware of career possibilities in the industry, leaving a gap needing to be bridged.
That’s where the High School Health Education Foundation comes into play. Dr. William Leahy, a semi-retired neurologist in Greenbelt, Maryland, had two goals in mind when he created the foundation: install a program that carves a path to the health field for high school seniors who won’t attend college, and ensure elderly Americans receive the care they require at senior living facilities or at home as administered by home health aides, geriatric nurses and Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs).
“There were two generational needs here: one for an aging population with more and more needs for caregiving, and the second for younger students who need relevant education and opportunities to enter the health care industry,” Dr. Leahy tells Senior Housing News.
Thanks to a partnership with Ingleside at King Farm, a not-for-profit continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Rockville, Maryland, students get first-hand experience in senior living and caregiving while residents enjoy participating in their education. And the partnership proves mutually beneficial, providing the CCRC access to a well-trained labor supply.
“Having a program like this exposes the younger generation to the health care field,” Adaeze Ikeotuonye, Ingleside at King Farm’s health care administrator, tells SHN. “Not many people in high school are necessarily thinking of working in the senior living industry, but bringing them in at such a young age and letting them see what the career possibilities are—that mixes up the dynamics.”
From High Schooler to Caregiver
After identifying a demand for caregivers among seniors and the need for a pathway to the industry, Dr. Leahy, who serves on the Ingleside board of directors, set out to bring the two together. He launched the foundation more than a decade ago, but in 2015, he reintroduced the concept following a four-year hiatus.
The free, one-semester, after-school and weekends program involves classroom instruction for senior-level students at Gaithersburg High School in Maryland, with on-the-job training at Ingleside at King Farm’s Comprehensive Care Center. The curriculum consists of two hours of lecture materials three afternoons a week administered by a local community college, with practicum sessions typically on Saturdays. The ultimate goal is to prepare the students for the exams necessary to become CNAs or geriatric nursing assistants.
Dr. Leahy asks high school vocational counselors to identify students who might be interested in health care, and applicants must submit essays on why they want to participate, along with a letter of recommendation and their transcripts. He and his team also meet with the students and their parents or guardians.
And the application process proves competitive. Last year—the first time Gaithersburg High School featured the program—more than 100 people applied for 15 available spots. Given the average cost of $2,000 per student to cover exam costs, scrubs, instruction and more, as well as the extensive nature of the program itself, students must understand the nature of what they’re taking on.
“They have to understand this is a large commitment and takes a lot of time and energy,” Dr. Leahy says. “This requires a certain maturity. It’s a commitment for the foundation to provide that educational nut, and also on the students’ part to take advantage of the opportunity beyond high school and into health care.”
Ten of the 15 weeks students spend in the program involve six-hour clinical training sessions at Ingleside, where they work side-by-side with CNAs, nurses and residents. At first, they shadow staff to get the lay of the land, but their tasks and responsibilities increase as they become more comfortable and gain a better understanding of the course materials.
“As their competencies grow in the class, we start to give them more hands-on experience with the residents,” Ikeotuonye says.
And as time passes, Ingleside residents and staff notice students’ growth. At first, they might be a bit timid and reserved, but as the program progresses, they get to know the residents better and became more relaxed—a “rapid maturity,” Ikeotuonye says.
The benefits of clinical training extend beyond its educational value for the students, too. With Gaithersburg High School’s first cohort, Ingleside residents began checking in with students to see where they were at in their studies. Employees were pleased to have the extra people in the building to provide some assistance.
For Ingleside as a whole, the program establishes connections for potential hires once students graduate or in the future.
“One of the benefits is that we can count on the education they’ve received,” Ikeotuonye says. “It would be to our advantage to hire those students.”
Moving forward, Dr. Leahy intends to be very deliberate in expanding the reach of his foundation. The second round of the program will take place at Gaithersburg High School this fall, and a version will be unrolled at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C., through a partnership with Ingleside at Rock Creek, as well.
“The biggest issue with expansion is going to be quality control,” Dr. Leahy says. “It’s far better to do it slowly and regionally, and try to sustain what we build up.”
That’s not to say Dr. Leahy wouldn’t like to see this type of program implemented around the country, though. There’s no questioning its value for all parties involved, he says, as financially strapped parents struggle with the overwhelming economic burden of sending their sons and daughters to receive higher education, and the senior living industry faces a significant caregiver shortage.
“This is a real plus, because it will provide well trained, mature young people who can work with seniors and learn there are all kinds of options beyond the CNA program,” Dr. Leahy says. “Their futures and the future of the industry are strong together.”
Written by Kourtney Liepelt
Photo courtesy of Ingleside at King Farm.