Mennonite College of Nursing will celebrate the accomplishments of the Expanding Teaching Nursing Home Project this week after five years of the program. Even though it marks the end of this particular grant, lessons from the project will continue to guide nursing practice taught in the college.

The project began with a one-year U.S. Department of Education grant as the Joe Warner Teaching Nursing Home Project, with the intent to send nursing students into long-term care facilities for clinical experiences and interaction with nursing professionals. During that year, relationships were built that would become the basis for the initiative made possible by a five-year grant awarded by the Illinois Department of Public Health, which became known as the Expanding the Teaching-Nursing Home Culture in the State of Illinois or Expanding Teaching-Nursing Home Project. Partnering with Heritage Enterprises, the overall goals for this grant were to increase the number of student nurses specializing in geriatrics after graduation and to improve nursing practices in long-term care facilities.

To get students interested in working with the aging population, the college organized long-term care career fairs. Representatives from long-term care facilities and organizations that cater to these facilities participated, and students were encouraged to visit long-term care facilities and apply for work closer to graduation.

Charlene Aaron, project coordinator and assistant professor of nursing, noted that those visits made a significant impression on students. “They learned about the caveats to working at a nursing home, which include the home-like environment; teamwork among employees, students and faculty; resident care; and interactions with family members. It really turns students on to liking long-term care environments. They see the bigger picture of long-term care nursing.”

The grant also made it possible for the College to host national keynote speakers, with the focus on reducing ageism.

“Students across campus from communication sciences and disorders, psychology and nursing came together. These events really make all of us respect older adults more and reinforce in us that we need to learn from them so that we can become better people, better nurses and better citizens,” Aaron said.

The keynote speaker events also engaged others in the community who could benefit from learning about older adults, one example being contractors rethinking the way they build to accommodate an aging population.

“It was not just about educating students, but also other stakeholders, and sharing stories in such a way that helps family members and business leaders who have an interest in aging, but aren’t connected to education. It helped people to think bigger about what aging means, and how they can personally contribute to enhance the lives of older adults,” said Aaron.

Another initiative aimed at reducing ageism included intergenerational events where nursing students, older adults and grade school children came together.

“It was just wonderful to see different age groups learning from each other. It was awesome to see older people happy, engaged and animated interacting with youngsters.” Aaron said. “It just makes the word ‘age’ disappear.”

Students also took summer independent study trips focused on elder research to New York City, Portland, Ore., and Baltimore. The New York trip was particularly valuable in helping students learn about caring for elders from different cultures in an urban setting, their needs, nursing care wishes and how to adapt and provide that kind of care. Students in Portland experienced a more rural environment where obtaining resources required driving and advanced planning in order to meet patient needs. In Baltimore, students visited several sites where geriatric advanced practice nurses worked, encouraging them to think more seriously about furthering their education with an advanced nursing degree.

Promoting advanced degrees in nursing was also one purpose of community college consortiums held at Heartland, Kankakee, Kaskaskia, and the Colleges of Chicago. The consortiums laid the groundwork for community colleges to aid associate degree nursing students in pursuing bachelor’s or master’s degrees, which would help raise the standard of nursing care, address the nursing shortage by developing nursing faculty and align with the Institute of Medicine’s 2010 recommendation to increase the number of nurses with a bachelor’s degree to 80 percent by 2020.

“Educators and people working in the field were brought together to impress upon both sides to meet each other halfway,” said Aaron. “Are they doing all they can to make nursing homes attractive to colleges of nursing so they will want to send student nurses there for learning experiences? Do they have a place for students to view charts, hold conferences and be a part of the caregiving team? Are faculty aware of the culture of the nursing home environment so that learning objectives can be planned effectively to enhance student learning and, at the same time, promote increased interest in a career in long-term care?”

“It was also impressed upon teachers and college administrators to have an academic advisor follow graduates to encourage them to continue advancing their degrees through bridge programs. This type of guidance makes the necessary educational journey seamless.”
Although Mennonite College of Nursing is marking the end of the Expanding Teaching Nursing Home Project, and there are no plans to apply for new funding, one initiative that will continue is preceptors in long-term care, which has been taken on by one local long-term care facility. The program aims to improve recruitment and retention of nurses in long-term care facilities by pairing new hires with a mentor, or preceptor. The preceptor works alongside the new hire until they are comfortable or feel competent to work independently. The program has been successful in recruitment and retention and also in cost savings. After being enforced for one year, the facility saved $150,000 due to not having to pay higher wages to agency nurses because it had enough of its own nursing staff.

Additional outcomes of the grant include increased use of technology in the nursing homes, continuing education modules and more students focusing on aging in research and advanced practice. The lessons of the project will persist and be central to the curriculum as people are living longer and may have several different diagnoses as they age. Aaron acknowledged that there are barriers to getting student nurses interested in working with the aging population, but that they are partially due to misconceptions, and many who choose to work in acute-care settings will likely care for patients over age 65 anyway.

“This project has gotten students interested in long-term care who didn’t know they were, and they are learning more and more about what age has to do with nursing, that we have to factor in the component of age with everything, and apply specialized nursing knowledge individually,” said Aaron. “These students are better prepared to serve the elder population.”