At Sacred Heart in Connecticut, a Dean Looks to the Future of Healthcare for Seniors

Aug. 11, 2023
At Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, Dean Maura Iversen is leading an effort in the College of Health Professions to address the needs of aging seniors

As the U.S. population ages, how will the healthcare delivery system prepare itself to support individuals as they age? That’s a question that’s being actively explored and tackled in the College of Health Professions at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.

On its website, Sacred Heart University states that that institution provides “a culture that builds character. A curriculum that launches careers. Strategic growth that powers the region. Alumni who inspire the world. These are the essential components of SHU’s forward leading spirit. You’ll see that spirit every day in the engagement of your fellow students, the passion and commitment of your professors, and the confidence and competence you’ll find within yourself,” it tells potential students, adding that “Our career-focused, liberal arts-based academic programs provide students with the intellectual and professional fuel they need to build lives of achievement and value.” According to Wikipedia, the university currently has 6,524 undergraduate students and 4,206 postgraduate students.

An article posted to the university’s website on December 22, 2022, began thus: “Recognizing that the ability to drive is an important milestone for people who are recovering from mild neurological conditions, Sacred Heart University Professor Sheelagh Schlegel is leading an occupational therapy (OT) study on the effect of a driving simulator for adults with neurological conditions who want to regain some independence. The pilot study included five participants between the ages of 19 and 90, all of whom had mild neurological conditions brought on by brain injury, Parkinson’s Disease or stroke. Two participants were disqualified due to COVID, but the remaining participants completed pre- and post-test clock drawing tests, trail making tests, the useful field of view assessments and surveys for participants to self-report confidence and comfort on the road.”

The article went on to note that “Schlegel administered an occupational therapy evaluation and the pre-testing to determine participants’ level of ability and interviewed them about their desire to drive. Five occupational therapy graduate students then worked with the participants for eight one-hour sessions in a Drive Safety R600 driving-simulator, which has adaptive features such as a left-sided gas pedal and hand controls. Another member of Sacred Heart’s occupational therapy faculty, who was not affiliated with the study, completed the post-testing on the participants.”

Sacred Heart University’s College of Health Professions in Fairfield, Conn., has several programs that benefit older adults, including that driving simulator computer system.

Recently, Healthcare Innovation Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland spoke with Maura Iversen, S.D., D.P.T., M.P.H., the dean of the College of Health Professions at Sacred Heart University, about the broader strategies around supporting seniors as they age. Iversen became dean there in January 2020, after 14 years as a professor and dean at Northeastern University in Boston. Below are excerpts from the interview with Dean Iverson.

Dean Iversen, that driving simulator program is a very intelligent initiative that showcases your university’s commitment to helping seniors age with dignity and giving them the support to age well.

Yes, that’s right; older adults are really enjoying the program. We use the driving simulator to help them prepare to a return to driving after a critical head injury or similar challenge; it’s a community service, and involves an eight-to-twelve-week program for each participant. In fact, we have half of an actual Ford car in a building on our campus, that we use in the program. Older adults really like the program, as it helps them rebuild skills in a totally safe setting.

How do you frame the age explosion and what it will mean for healthcare, for caring for an aging population?

A critical component is to break down some of the misconceptions that young adults have about working with older adults. And I’ve found that the best way to do that is to expose them to the opportunity of working with adults sooner. Take the example of physical therapy: many young people come into physical therapy because they’re interested in caring for those with sports injuries.

A recent story that is very heartening involves someone who was a linebacker on the football team at Northeastern, and he ended up loving working with seniors. And now he owns three nursing homes and is in charge of rehab in all three of them. For the most part, young people have a misperception of seniors: their misperception is that seniors are old and frail and sit around all day, and have no idea of what’s going on in the world. So, early exposure, different types of exposure, to working with seniors, is crucial. And to see people rowing crew or doing gymnastics at age 65—that changes perceptions. So don’t assume because someone’s had a hip fracture that they were never active. So learn about lifestyles and people.

And we have a geriatric residency at Sacred Heart. And physical therapy is formulated somewhat like medical school nowadays, where you get a doctoral degree and then do a residency with advanced training. And developing more residencies for specialization is very important. We’re committed to that at Sacred Heart, and we have both pediatric and orthopedic residencies. The other aspect of preparing new students is focusing on interdisciplinary team development, creating teams. As a dean, integrating across curricula when you have multiple programs, is very important.

As you lead your program, are you seeing more enthusiasm for working in the geriatric space?

Yes, I am absolutely seeing more enthusiasm now. We’re a Catholic university that’s service-oriented; so all of our students in addition to regular learning, do community service. And as we provide more and more opportunities, such as OT students creating splints, or in our master of science in exercise and sports science, and we have senior athletes competitive, and they’re developing exercise programs for senior athletes as well; not every 75-year-old is the same. So students expand their horizon as they finish their education and get into clinical practice; and there’s a greater affinity for caring for older people.

How will things evolve forward in the next three to five years?

As we have increased demand for the care of mature adults, we need to continue to evolve our curricula forward to meet the needs of older adults. And a certificate of gerontology doesn’t work in all programs. It might in nursing; but in physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech language pathology, and physician assistant studies, experiential development is more valued. So we have to have our pulse on all the professions, to develop appropriate educational programming.

Is there anything that health system leaders can do to partner with universities?

We typically partner with hospitals and health systems on our medical placements. But we’ve been developing more extensive formalized partnerships, having hospitals and medical groups coming to us to share their needs, and we develop curricula around their needs, so we have better synergy and alignment.

What have been the biggest learnings in all of this so far at Sacred Heart?

Well, I started as dean here in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that was a challenge. But I would say the biggest things I’ve learned—and I’ve always known this, but I’ve seen it directly now—the alignment with a mission statement is so important. So it’s been really enlightening to be at an organization where the mission is front and center in everything we do. And being dean of a college with fourteen different professions, allows me to see the synergies possible. That’s the opportunity of being a dean, where you can learn so much from the various programs, and parlay that into impactful academic programming and impactful community service.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

The driving simulator is just one example of one community service, and free to the public. We have programs to help people recover from stroke, so extending their functional performance through working with us in a service capacity. And we have a Speak Out program funded by the Michael J. Fox Foundation—an interprofessional program focusing on individuals with Parkinson’s, focusing on function as well as speech vocalization. People don’t realize you can lose vocal capacities. So by the middle of the afternoon or beyond, people can lose their ability to speak. We’re able to provide those seniors with a rich environment for our consumers, our community and our faculty.

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