older adult in graduation garb

A “Senior Scholars” program featuring life plan community residents as “knowledge experts” to educate student nurses about the spectrum of aging issues exemplifies how senior living communities are moving to activities that provide their residents with meaning and purpose.

Joan Devine, RN, director of education for Pioneer Network, and Mary Knapp, RN, director of health services at Foulkeways at Gwynedd in Gwynedd, PA, discussed innovative resident engagement opportunities on a panel during the American College of Health Care Administrators 2021 Convocation & Expo Virtual Experience.

The pandemic led to a loss of meaning and purpose, limited engagement, fear, and grief over loss of independence and loss of life, Devine said.

“We need to learn from the social isolation lessons of the pandemic,” she said, pointing to surveys of long-term care residents during the pandemic that highlighted missed socialization opportunities and days spent without purpose. “We’re now at a time to put this behind us, move on and learn lessons.”

Framing meaning and purpose, Devine said, is all about individualized care and services — the responsibility to find out what is meaningful to each resident.

Foulkeways at Gwynedd, the oldest continuing care retirement community in Pennsylvania and the first Quaker CCRC in the United States, began actively recruiting student nurses from schools of nursing in 2011 to provide creative, evidence-based clinical educational experiences for future caregivers. 

Once university faculty members experienced Foulkeways’ continuum — including independent living, assisted living, skilled nursing, home care, hospice and primary care — word spread, and the community became an interdisciplinary clinical educational site, Knapp said. Thirteen universities now send student nurses to the community.

Foulkeways has provided 27,500 hours of student education since 2011, which assists with its social accountability and nonprofit status.

But one resident wanted to do more than receive care from the student nurses.

Gus Beck, a retired pulmonologist living in the community’s nursing home, wanted to educate the student nurses about pulmonary anatomy and physiology. He created a curriculum and began teaching, becoming a favorite “professor” among the students.

Another resident, Bunny Brown, enlightened students on how she survived as a registered nurse in a Japanese prison camp in World War II. She told the future nurses about how she used her nursing skills to survive in captivity.

That presentation led to interest from other residents who believed they had something to contribute, leading to the launch of the community’s Senior Scholars program, in which residents volunteer to become “knowledge experts,” sharing their lived experiences with students. 

Senior Scholars have talked to nursing students about post-traumatic stress disorders, hearing loss, end of life, coping with loss, living alone with multiple health conditions, congenital kidney disease, macular degeneration, depression, and living with multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease or arthritis.

“It dispelled aging myths. Students learn how to approach person-centered care,” Knapp said. “The Senior Scholars program steps up their clinical education by creating an environment where students learn from their ‘clients.’ In other clinical settings, the students are expected to provide all the ‘patient education.’ At Foulkeways, students not only give, but they receive.”

The Senior Scholars program received the Pioneer Network & Rockport Healthcare Services Community Commitment Award in 2019 for demonstrating an extraordinary standard of community service.