UConn School of Nursing Working to Fill the Need for Skilled Alzheimer’s, Dementia Care

Meeting the growing needs of people suffering from dementia - and their families

A nurse holds the hand of an elderly patient.

The number of Americans with dementia is expected to reach 14 million by 2060 (Adobe Stock).

More than 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s dementia and, without medical intervention, the number of people living with dementia of all types is expected to rise to 14 million by the year 2060. It’s a public health crisis for which treatment is limited – there is no cure, and there’s a shortage of skilled professionals to care for those in need.

The UConn School of Nursing is aiming to fill this gap by launching a new online graduate certificate in Dementia Care, which will begin admitting students in the fall following approval by the Board of Trustees earlier this week.

The interdisciplinary three-semester, 12-credit fully online program – designed to help not just nurses but a broad range of health care professionals improve the care of persons living with dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease – is the culmination of more than five years of work by Christine DiLeone, an assistant clinical professor in the School of Nursing and the program coordinator for the new certificate.

“I have my own experiences with my mom with Alzheimer’s, but it was in a clinical setting with nursing students that I realized we have a gap in care as I observed the students caring for a patient with dementia,” says DiLeone. “She was very scared and wanted to go home; the students really didn’t know how to communicate with her, because it’s a very different type of care.”

While DiLeone used resources from the Connecticut chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association to help teach her cohort of clinical students how to interact with the patient, the experience pointed her toward a greater need that she hopes the new program will help to fill.

“We are doing the health care profession such a disservice when we ask them to care for this population and we don’t educate them,” she says. “We have all these expectations of them, but they need to be educated. Several studies show that when you offer training and education, it’s going to improve outcomes, and it’s going to improve quality of life, but we have a severe training shortage in dementia care in our country.”

The new graduate certificate consists of three courses that will be offered both synchronously and asynchronously, with the first focusing on disease trajectory and management, including pathophysiology and clinical trials related to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

The second course focuses on supporting, educating, assessing, and guiding families and caregivers of people living with dementia – a critical component of comprehensive dementia care, with some 11 million Americans currently providing unpaid care to people with Alzheimer’s or other dementias.

“Two-thirds of caregivers are women, and one-third of those are daughters,” says DiLeone, who conducted a study last year on the unmet needs of daughters as caregivers. “Women play an enormous role in caregiving, and they’re a set of people that we really need to focus on, because they have a lot of unmet needs – emotionally, physical, medically, and financially. They need support.”

The third course introduces students to common behaviors of people with dementia and teaches important skills for communicating, interacting, and providing care as well as non-pharmacological interventions.

It’s a holistic approach that, in comparison to the few other programs available, provides a comprehensive approach to addressing the public health priority and growing need for dementia care education, DiLeone says.

“It’s really going to be a stand-out program,” she says.

“The School of Nursing proudly serves the citizens of Connecticut and responds to their changing health care needs,” Dean Deborah Chyun says. “In this case, we saw an opportunity to improve care for the growing number of people with dementia and provide health care professionals with the option to diversify their skill set. Students in the program will be exposed to innovative techniques from experts in multiple fields.”

It also boasts an impressive line-up of faculty and guest presenters from the School of Nursing, UConn Health Center on Aging, the Alzheimer’s Association Connecticut Chapter, Johns Hopkins University, Hartford HealthCare, and the University of Colorado.

While the new certificate originates from the School of Nursing, DiLeone says the program’s interdisciplinary approach is important because nurses and other health care workers are constantly working collaboratively to address patient needs.

“It’s not just nurses who are taking care of people with dementia,” she says. “Social workers, physical therapists, health care administrators, occupational therapists – there are so many different professions that are caring for and coming into contact with people with this disease, and they really need to have expertise in it.”

The School of Nursing online graduate certificate in Dementia Care is enrolling now. For more information, visit dementia-care.online.uconn.edu