Internships are a great way to welcome individuals into the senior living profession.

They can be the final step in a student’s education and often their first experience working with residents. Many communities, however, are uncertain about taking on the responsibility that comes with these programs. They may worry that their associates do not have the time to oversee an intern, and they may view the intern as a liability rather than an asset.

When driven by a mindset of scarcity-thinking and fear, communities avoid hiring interns and stick to experienced associates who need less training. But in doing so, they are missing out on the many benefits of working with interns.

Over the years, I’ve learned just as much from my interns as they have learned from me. I’ve witnessed residents gravitate toward interns and connect with them in new ways. And I’ve watched as interns have grown, both personally and professionally, during their time at the community to the benefit of everyone involved.

At Watermark Retirement Communities, we support internship programs because we believe they play a key role in the future of the senior living profession. Nationally, we recognize that every person we mentor and train will one day enter the workforce, serve older adults and become the professionals who redefine senior living. If we can teach them just one way to better understand and care for future residents, our time has been well spent.

The Fountains at Lake Pointe Woods’ internship program

The Fountains at Lake Pointe Woods recently partnered with Florida International University to offer an internship to a student in the university’s recreational therapy program. The program positions students to become certified therapeutic recreational specialists and teaches them recreation and other activity-based interventions that address the needs of individuals with illnesses and/or disabilities.

In the senior living environment, this training allows recreational therapists to offer adaptations to address the limitations some older individuals may face — such as hearing or vision loss — to continue living a fulfilling life. For example, a resident with vision loss may be introduced to large-text versions of books or audio books. Associates also may show them how to increase the font size on their phone or computer. All with the commitment of helping them thrive in their current phase of life.

Best practices for internship programs

Having supervised several CTRS interns throughout my career, I’ve discovered a few best practices to ensure the internship program is successful and mutually beneficial. Whether you are currently supervising an intern, interested in starting an internship program, or curious about what a program entails, these tips will be helpful.

1. Familiarize yourself with the internship requirements.

Both the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification and the participating schools and colleges have certain requirements for the internship program. In my experience, those requirements can include the number of hours the student must complete as well as weekly reports, assessments, case studies and general supervision. It is the supervisor’s job to sign off on the intern’s weekly reports to his or her professor and to provide comments and grades to the school.

Before bringing on an intern, be sure to familiarize yourself with those requirements and ensure that your team has the bandwidth to see the program to completion. Reviewing the requirements upfront also will allow you to begin developing a custom curriculum for your intern before his or her start date. Although a formal requirement may not exist, having a plan will help ensure a smooth onboarding process and allow you to get a running start.

2. Involve interns in all aspects of the department.

At our community, the internship program falls under Community Life. As such, we involve the intern in all aspects of the department, from planning events and helping with our monthly calendar to the logistics behind all of our programs, classes, events and outings. Our goal is to give the intern a well-rounded experience and use his or her expertise where it is needed.

Whether your intern is working with community life, dining, caregiving or maintenance, make sure he or she is fully involved in the process. For example, one day, the intern may shadow the director, and on another the intern may complete a list of tasks based on his or her strengths and weaknesses. The commitment, however, always should be to educate the intern while simultaneously improving the experience of residents.

3. Learn from them whenever possible.

Although an intern is there to learn from your team, don’t miss the opportunity to learn from the intern, too. Listen to his or her ideas, ask for input, and look for ways the intern can help you improve current protocols. When you view the relationship as mutually beneficial, both parties will walk away having learned from the experience.

The biggest benefit our community has seen from the internship program is the input of individuals who are fresh in their careers and learning the latest practices and applying what they learn in class. For some associates, it has been more than 20 years since they were in school, and the curriculum no longer is fresh in their mind. Our intern has taught us new terminology and offered a renewed perspective.

The above principles can be applied to interns in any department and during any phase of an internship program. It is never too late to improve your current practices, particularly when those practices not only educate future generations but also contribute to the forward momentum and progress of the senior living profession as a whole.

As with most things in life, you will get what you put into it. If you view the program as a mutually beneficial relationship, then you can expect a rewarding experience and worthwhile your return on investment.

Michelle Sayre, CTRS, CDP, is the community life director at the Fountains at Lake Pointe Woods, an independent and assisted living community in Sarasota, FL.