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Training the front line workers who can put research into practice

Kelly Kay never thought of herself as a researcher. Yet, thanks to a unique training program offered by the Technology Evaluation in the Elderly Network (TVN), the Executive Director of the Seniors Care Network now finds herself finishing a two-year research fellowship and setting her sights on a Ph.D. Her goal is to help her organization, and others like it, better understand how technology can improve the care of seriously ill, frail elderly people, and provide better support for their families and caregivers.

Kay is one of more than 120 working professionals, undergraduate, and graduate students participating in the TVN program. Developed in partnership with stakeholders, the program emphasizes hands-on experience versus traditional classroom learning. It draws from disciplines and sectors critical to improving care for the frail elderly, including medicine, nursing, rehabilitation and bio-medical sciences, nutrition, engineering, law, social work and theology. And, unlike most educational programs, trainees work hand-in-hand with critical “end users”—the frail elderly, their families and caregivers who will ultimately benefit from new technology. 

Launched in 2013, TVN’s fellowships and summer student awards enable trainees to work on a wide range of research initiatives that can be translated into practical knowledge and products, such as developing hi-tech non-slip footwear, using digital storytelling to improve understanding of aging, creating fitness regimes, and evaluating cross-cultural approaches in advance care planning.

Mentors Bryna Rudner (left) and Paula Rudner (centre) help Kelly Kay ensure the views of seniors are always front and centre.

Mentors Bryna Rudner (left) and Paula Rudner (centre) help Kelly Kay ensure the views of seniors are always front and centre.

“The program is already changing attitudes in terms of how trainees view the needs of frail elderly and caregivers, and the opportunities in working with people from other disciplines and sectors. You can’t expect this type of learning with a textbook or a boot camp. It needs to be experiential-based,” says Denise Stockley, an educational psychologist at Queen’s University who helped design TVN’s training program.

Dr. Stockley adds that it’s particularly important that trainees include both students as well as professionals already working in the field. “The population of frail elderly is growing and it’s going to take more than people just newly arriving into the field. It needs people at all levels engaged in looking at things differently.”

Through TVN’s extensive national network, Kay now connects with engineers and software designers to explore the practical use and limits of technology to provide comprehensive geriatric assessments closer to where people live.

“Right now if a vendor comes and tells me how great some new piece of technology is for seniors I have no way of evaluating it. My research with TVN will help organizations make more informed decisions about which technologies are best suited for their clients, their families and other caregivers,” says Kay, who has worked in health care for 26 years, including 17 in administration and policy.

Her project is also examining how videoconferencing can be expanded to provide interprofessional comprehensive geriatric assessments in a senior person’s home. Helping frail elderly people get the care they need starts with a geriatric assessment but many seniors find it difficult to travel to an urban centre where assessments are normally done.

This has been a particular problem for the Seniors Care Network, part of the Central East Local Health Integration Network, whose catchment area extends north from Scarborough to the Haliburton region and east to Campbellford. Kay found that about 30% of their clients end up cancelling their appointments.

“I’m coming at this from the point of view of a health administrator, not a researcher,” says Kay, who is working under the supervision of Brenda Gamble at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. “As such, I’m interested in learning how health professionals interact with the technology, what seniors and their families think about the technology and how the voices of seniors influence technology design.”

One of the strongest components of the program is its mentors, who include professionals from a related discipline as well as patients and caregivers. Trainees credit mentors with strengthening their understanding and broadening the scope of their research and making their projects more relevant.

Two of Kay’s mentors, Paula Rudner, age 65 and Bryna Rudner, age 92, ensure the views of seniors are always front and centre in her project. “Their input helps me frame questions and ideas in a way that is relevant to seniors. I’ve learned so much from them both.”

Kay’s days as a researcher won’t end when the fellowship wraps up in September 2015. In addition to translating what she’s learned into practice at the Seniors Care Network, she will also be working on a Ph.D. in Adult Education and Community Development at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education (University of Toronto), in a collaborative program with the Institute of Life Course and Aging.

“This experience has given me the drive  and courage to apply for a Ph.D.,” says Kay, “which is something I would never have considered before.”