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Wellness program intern Erin Horne talks with Karina Bridget, a resident at Eaton Senior Communities.

Healthy partnerships for senior living

Students gain essential skills in health care as interns at Eaton Senior Communities, Health Professions chair recounts.

August 11, 2017

By Emily Matuszewicz, Ph.D.

Emily Matuszewicz, Ph.D.Magic. I’ve thought about it over and over, and magic is the best word to describe it.

When two people meet and change each other for the better – to me, that’s magic.

It’s the essence of the partnership between Metropolitan State University of Denver and Eaton Senior Communities, a senior living center in Lakewood. For the last six years, MSU Denver students studying health professions have been interning there – in both clinical and management roles.

Let me give you a firsthand account and see if magic doesn’t come to mind. A couple of years after this collaboration began, I was attending a fundraiser at the center. I took a seat next to one of the residents – a sweet, gentle lady in her 70s. After we exchanged pleasantries, she began telling me how the MSU Denver interns had helped her. “They truly have improved my life,” she said. “Now I’m more active, I do more things, I eat better, I’ve lost weight, and I’ve even lowered the amount of medicine I take.”

It was wonderful – such a moving moment. I had always suspected this partnership was something special, but after hearing her words, I knew it was magical.

But, the magic almost never happened – the whole partnership was in jeopardy – at the very start.

Why? Students were wary. They, like many, immediately conjured images of gray walls, dim lighting, depressed people, bland food, bad odors – and all the other senior residence stereotypes.

I personally knew it wasn’t true at Eaton Senior Communities. I’d been there. It’s an astonishing facility. The staffers are there because they want to be. It’s their life’s calling. The staff and management are innovative, always brainstorming and testing ways to make life for residents not only better, but amazing. And, when that happens, the residents are there because – yes – they want to be there. Not many senior facilities can say that.

I knew the center had a bus it uses to take residents around Denver. I suggested the facility come to MSU Denver, pick up a few of our students and deliver them at the center's doorstep: a fieldtrip with a hidden agenda.

It worked. After the students saw the location, getting them to sign up was a cinch. So far over 20 students have interned there. In fact, today it’s one of the most popular options among students in our Department of Health Professions.

One of those former interns – and now an employee – is Kate West. She admits she had her own reservations about interning there.

“While I grew up with my grandparents in my life and a very positive model for aging, I had also visited nursing homes to sing as a child,” she told me. “They were sad and lonely places and I feared that Eaton Senior Communities would be the same. I remember when I walked through the doors for my interview, one of the first things I noticed was that it didn’t smell and it was decorated so nicely.”

West, who’s a resident services coordinator there today, adds that her internship dispelled the myths on aging and helped her cultivate “a deep love for working with aging adults.”

Healthcare management interns Ojie Laguatan and Kayla Green meet with Diana Delgado, chief operating officer at Eaton Senior Communities.

West also believes the MSU Denver-Eaton Senior Communities partnership is special primarily because of the intergenerational interaction. “The interns and residents learn from each other, and that leads to powerful conversations and relationships. Both the students and residents get to make a difference in each other’s lives, and that’s the most valuable learning experience possible.”

Many MSU Denver interns at the facility serve as wellness coaches and work one-on-one with residents to improve their health via yoga, walking and nutrition. Other interns studying health care management work in the center's administration to develop their business skills.

Of course with aging Baby Boomers, the field is ripe with employment opportunities – one of the key reasons we launched the program. Potential employers regularly tell me they need students with soft skills, and I think that's a big part of what our students are getting – real-life, hands-on experiences that develop those soft skills that are critical in any work environment.

Honestly, it’s hard for me not to overemphasize just how transformational this has been for students.

And the facility's CEO, David Smart, says the same about the residents. They’re clearly benefitting, too. A formal study showed positive outcomes at practically every measure: They have better health – both physical and mental – are more engaged, active and fulfilled with a renewed sense of purpose.

Smart adds the program has also reduced operational costs (interns are providing important services at low cost and healthier residents require less spending) and opened doors to better finances because of increased grant money – vital in an increasingly competitive market for senior living residences.

The partnership has been so successful, LeadingAge, a nonprofit that works on aging issues, gave MSU Denver and the center a $50,000 grant to create a guide to help other communities around the United States replicate the collaboration.

So sure, plenty of business and economic benefits are blooming. But for me, and I think for the students and residents and certainly the staff at Eaton Senior Communities and for MSU Denver, it’s all about the magic of people helping people.

This article originally appeared in the July 2017 edition of the Colorado Real Estate Journal. Emily Matuszewicz, Ph.D., is the chair of the Department of Health Professions at MSU Denver.

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