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Project RELATE: Managing the Person With Alzheimer's Disease

April 1, 2004
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A Spectrum Health pilot study in Michigan shows caregivers how to use a person-centered approach to improve quality of life for residents with Alzheimer's by Todd Hutlock, Assistant Editor

Project RELATE: Managing the person with Alzheimer's disease

This facility is studying staff training techniques for person-centered Alzheimer's care Dealing with residents with dementia can be a trying experience for all involved. Unfortunately, in the rush to make the afflicted residents as comfortable as possible, the strain on caregivers and family members is seldom considered. Some caregivers can fall into the trap of treating these residents as objects, forgetting that they are still people with feelings and emotional needs. Could specialized training and a person-centered approach for caregivers lead to improved quality of life for these residents?

That's exactly what Iris Boettcher, MD, CMD, and her team of researchers set out to investigate with Project RELATE (Research and Education for Living with Alzheimer's Disease: Therapeutic Eldercare). The pilot study took place in 2001 at a 165-bed licensed SNF in Grand Rapids, Michigan, managed by Spectrum Health, a Michigan-based regional healthcare system. Dr. Boettcher, medical director of geriatrics for Spectrum Health, explains that the project initially had very personal reasons behind it. "Several years ago I was approached by a philanthropist in the community whose wife has Alzheimer's disease, and he was interested in funding some sort of project related to older adults," says Dr. Boettcher. "Knowing that his wife had Alzheimer's disease and that there were a number of caregiving issues related to providing for her care, and recognizing my experience in caring for persons with dementia, he agreed to fund a project looking at specific caregiving techniques to use and apply in the process of caring for residents with dementia."

With the funding firmly in place, Dr. Boettcher and her team started to research dementia care from the perspective of both the residents and the caregivers. "In designing the project, Betsy Kemeny, one of the team members, culled the literature, looking for evidence-based practice techniques for caring for persons with dementia," Dr. Boettcher explains. "We took some of the principles from [famed British researcher] Tom Kitwood, who had written about person-centered care and its approach to people with dementia. We didn't find much evidence-based material at all, so we designed a training program to implement organizational change in the approach to caring for residents with dementia, and designed an evaluation program to measure the effectiveness of the training.

"One of the principles we wanted to incorporate into the project was sustainability over time," she continues. "We put together sessions specifically for direct caregivers, in this case the CNAs. On top of that, we developed specific sessions for nurses, who would mentor the CNAs in providing care. There had been some literature to demonstrate that if you didn't do the mentoring piece, or the coaching piece, you wouldn't be able to sustain results over time, so we included both."

With the background work completed, Dr. Boettcher and company ran five different sessions for CNAs-one per week. The sessions covered:
  • Practical information about residents with dementia
  • Communication techniques
  • Beginning and sustaining life activities specific to the individual
  • Assisting residents with need-driven or agitated behaviors
  • Interacting and relating to their mentors (the nurses), and generally recognizing their role in the larger organization
In addition, nurses attended four sessions on how to mentor the CNAs. "We picked out observation skills, giving feedback, and goal-setting skills as the three main components that we wanted them to learn in providing mentoring to nursing assistants," says Dr. Boettcher. "We observed interactions between CNAs and residents prior to the training, as well as between nurses and CNAs, and we compared those observations to what we found after the training. We used what is called a BARS, or a behaviorally anchored rating system, looking for specific behaviors that we wanted from the CNAs and the mentors that would improve person-centered care. The BARS were developed using a three-stage process. First, the experimenters listed the key CNA behaviors being taught in the person-centered care training sessions, creating low, acceptable, and superior examples of these behaviors. Second, subject matter experts were asked to rate these behaviors to ensure that the experimenters placed them in the right performance level categories. Third, the behaviors were categorized into seven dimensions and placed in the BARS format." These key behavioral dimensions of person-centered care were:
  • Nonverbal initiation of person-centered interactions
  • Assistance with independence-oriented tasks
  • Conversation
  • Interaction with residents using unique details of their lives
  • Initiating lifestyle activities
  • Responding to residents' calls for help