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Cornell Pilot Aims to Improve Relationships in Assisted Living

People don’t always get along—that’s just the way it is. But this can become particularly problematic in senior living, especially when the conflict is between residents’ family members and the caregiving staff.

“In the senior care world, there are tremendous possibilities for miscommunication, for people taking things the wrong way or for direct conflict,” Karl Pillemer, professor of human development at Cornell University, tells Senior Housing News. A new Cornell University program he worked to create is meant to solve those communication issues, one assisted living community at a time.

‘Natural partners in care’

Cornell University’s Partners in Care in Assisted Living (PICAL) project was designed to increase effective communication and cooperation between family members of assisted living residents and staff. The project, which has received funding from the American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA), is being piloted in two assisted living communities operated by Chicago-based Senior Lifestyle Corp., as well as 20 assisted living communities run by Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD).

The inspiration for the project comes from an unlikely source: childhood day care. Initiatives have been undertaken to better understand and improve the relationships between day care workers and childrens’ families, Pillemer says; the same can be said of the relationships between teachers and the parents of their students. Years back, Pillemer conducted a similar project in skilled nursing facilities, he explains—but now the need has shifted to assisted living.

“Nowadays, assisted living communities have become more and more like skilled nursing facilities, in terms of the resident population,” Pillemer says. “Some of the troubling communication problems found in skilled nursing may be in assisted living, but it’s not anyone’s fault. It’s a difficult situation.”

Today’s assisted living residents may have difficulty sharing personal information with staff, whether due to memory loss or otherwise, Pillemer says. That’s why it is crucial that residents’ family members have good relationships with staff.

“Too often we find some families of residents can become adversaries with staff and with the community, and we believe families and staff are actually the most natural partners in care,” Pillemer says. “We need both the staff’s professional expertise, and families’ in-depth knowledge of who a resident is and was.”

A vigorous study

The PICAL program works as follows: first, two staff members from every participating assisted living community are trained by Cornell University. “It’s a ‘train-the-trainer’ program,” Pillemer explains.

Then, before all of the staff members at participating communities receive PICAL training, questionnaires are administered to both staff members and residents’ family members, which Cornell will use as a “pre-test” of sorts. That way, researchers can gauge the project’s outcome.

Then, PICAL training will be conducted at each participating assisted living community. As part of the training, staff come together for a workshop, and family members of residents take part in a different, but similar workshop. Following the completion of these workshops, family and staff will meet in a joint workshop to learn from one another and form relationships.

Afterward, everyone will complete another survey, to see if the relationships between family and staff actually changed. The study also involves a control group, as some communities are having their staff and families answer surveys without participating in the PICAL training, Pillemer says.

The funding from ASHA allows Cornell researchers to conduct a “solid, vigorous study of whether the program works or not,” Pillemer says. “That’s sometimes unusual in our field. The research data is a very positive feature of our project.”

‘Something you can never do too well’

Ideally, PICAL will be proven to enhance the relationships between staff and family in assisted living. But it may also be proven to improve employee satisfaction and reduce turnover rates, Pillemer says.

Senior Lifestyle, as a company, sees great value in improving communication between staff and residents’ families. “That’s something you can never do too well,” Heather Keena, vice president of training and development at Senior Lifestyle, tells SHN.

There’s a similar attitude at Brookdale.

“This is an opportunity to really learn how to enhance and improve resident, family and associate experience in assisted living,” Sara Terry, Brookdale’s vice president of resident and family engagement, tells SHN. “We value any opportunity we have to work on a project that improves communication and betters relationships.”

Written by Mary Kate Nelson

Exam” by Alberto G. is licensed under CC BY 2.0