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Faculty Integrate Palliative Care into Geriatrics Education

There’s no good reason to fear old age, says Beverly Lunsford, Ph.D., R.N., director of the Center for Aging Health and Humanities in GW’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), and associate research professor in the George Washington University School of Nursing (SON).

Older adults live active and vibrant lives, she says. They continue to grow, develop, and seek meaning and purpose in their lives. They are not the sum of their broken parts; they are individuals with potential — and they deserve to be treated as such.

“I want to change people’s notion of the older adult from someone who’s just a health problem to a person with creative potential,” says Lunsford. And thanks to a three-year, $500,000 grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), she is already working toward this goal.

The award, which is in the final year of its original funding, supports the Geriatric Education Utilizing a Palliative Care Framework (GEPaC) project, a multi-disciplinary effort aimed at increasing access to high-quality geriatric education for physicians, nurses, occupational and physical therapists, physician assistants, and other clinicians who provide care for the over-65 crowd — a population that’s growing by the second.

“The goal is to achieve quality of life that gives the person the opportunity to continue to grow and develop as a person.”
Beverly Lunsford, Ph.D., R.N.

“There are gaps between geriatric and palliative care education,” says Lunsford. But because most people over the age of 65 are dealing with chronic health conditions, closing those gaps is more critical than ever before.

Through the GEPaC curriculum, aspiring health care professionals will learn how to manage disease in a way that promotes optimal functioning and a high quality of life. The modules focus on person-centered care, communication, interdisciplinary collaboration, quality of life, and multidimensional aspects of aging.

“The goal is not curing,” says Lunsford. “The goal is to achieve quality of life that gives the person the opportunity to continue to grow and develop as a person.”

Lunsford credits her interdisciplinary team of colleagues — including Philip Blatt, P.T., Ph.D., assistant professor of Health Care Sciences at SMHS; Cheryl Arenella M.D., M.P.H, a cancer education specialist in Virginia; Jacqueline Barnett, M.S.H.S., P.A.-C., assistant professor of Health Care Sciences; Elizabeth Cobbs, M.D., associate professor of Medicine at SMHS; Mary Corcoran, Ph.D., associate dean of Faculty Development for Health Care Sciences at SMHS; Jean Johnson, Ph.D., R.N., dean of SON; Laurie Lyons, instructional designer at SMHS; Laurie Posey, Ed.D., assistant professor at SON; and Paul Tschudi, Ed.S., visiting assistant professor of Health Care Sciences at SMHS — with helping make the project accessible to a wide variety of health professions.

Once complete, the collaboration between SON, SMHS, Shenandoah University, and the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization will implement the project in traditional classroom, online classroom, and online continuing education settings.

“There is a real hunger for geriatrics education,” says Lunsford. “If we can teach it from a palliative perspective, we can better manage disease, improve quality of life, support the patient and family, and lower health care costs. It’s a win-win situation.”