Monday, February 25, 2008

Nearly 1 million people, mostly senior citizens, live in assisted living communities in the United States. That is 350,000 more residents than a decade ago. The rapid expansion — and the need for trained administrators — is predicted to continue as baby boomers age.

That is why George Mason University began an innovative curriculum at its Fairfax campus six years ago. George Mason’s program in assisted living/senior housing administration is the only one of its type in the United States. Students can earn a bachelor of science or a master’s degree in health administration with a concentration in assisted living and senior housing administration. Master’s level students also can earn a certificate credential for completing the core course work.

Assistant professor Andrew Carle, director of the program, came to academia after a career as an executive with an assisted living corporation. He says the needs of assisted living residents differ from those who live in nursing homes. The curriculum at George Mason gives students the foundation they need to work effectively in the fast-growing industry, he says.

“Assisted living facilities outnumber nursing homes by more than 2 to 1,” Mr. Carle says. “In assisted living, we are not trying to take the place of a nursing home. We are trying to take the place of the [longtime] home.”

Residents in assisted living have a wide range of needs. While a nursing home resident may be primarily confined to bed, an assisted living resident may only need help with activities of daily living, such as taking medications or bathing. Many assisted living residents are in reasonable health, but need assistance because they have a memory impairment such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Issues such as Alzheimer’s, senior nutrition, normal aging, the U.S. health care system and issues of death and dying are among the choices for the 18 hours of course work required for the George Mason program. This is in addition to mandatory core health administration courses (42 credit hours for undergraduates; 24 hours for graduate students) such as health care economics, finance, health policy and law, among others.

Students in the undergraduate program also are required to complete an internship. The hands-on training of working in all aspects of a care facility from marketing to food service to activities planning — provides valuable experience.

Christina Shah, a 2007 GMU graduate, performed an internship at Falcon’s Landing, a retirement facility in Loudoun County. She was immediately hired upon graduation by Falcon’s Landing as an administrator in its assisted living division.

“I was ecstatic to get a job,” says Mrs. Shah, who plans on returning to the program at George Mason to earn her master’s degree in the same field.

Mrs. Shah, 33, says her job is part behind-the-scenes, part dealing with residents.

“It is very important to know the residents,” she says. “You have to be a very caring, compassionate person to work in this field. You have to have management skills, as well as people skills.”

Francesca Strecker, who graduated from George Mason with a degree in English in 1990, returned to the school last year to take Mr. Carle’s core class — assisted living/senior housing management and philosophy.

—Mrs. Strecker, a former government employee who took a few years off recently to be with her young children, says she has always loved being around seniors.

“My grandmother came to live with us when I was a child,” she says. “I was always around her and her friends. I saw this program at Mason, so I took the one class and said, ‘This is it. This is my life’s calling.’”

Mrs. Strecker plans on taking the additional courses in the program, but meanwhile, she is working as the activities director at Sunrise Senior Living at Fair Oaks. She says she tries to plan activities that will inspire and entertain the residents. That includes social events, discussions, physical activities and other creative outlets.

“They need activities that spark them spiritually and mentally,” Mrs. Strecker says of the residents. “It is not just bingo.”

Meanwhile, Melody Burgess, manager of Sunrise’s executive-director-in-training program, says students coming from George Mason’s program are very well-prepared for the business of assisted living.

“They come out of the program with a lot of knowledge and are ready to hit the ground running,” she says. Ms. Burgess says course work is a great framework, but is not a substitute for the passion one needs for the industry.

Sunrise Assisted Living, whose corporate headquarters is in McLean, helped found the George Mason program. Ms. Burgess says because the demand for assisted living administrators will increase, she hopes other schools will start similar programs.

“Because of our rapid growth, we have demand [for jobs] outweighing supply,” Ms. Burgess says. “But because we have this program, we are hopeful we will have that supply. We are hopeful other schools will start a program as well.”

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