Wall Solutions project finds ‘nurse navigators’ play vital role in senior care

April 22, 2015

Retirement can be a big adjustment for someone who has spent his or her whole life working and keeping busy. Many of these newly retired professionals want to keep contributing to their community but aren’t sure how.

A three-year study conducted by researchers at UBC Okanagan may give them some ideas.

The study shows these baby boomers can help seniors with chronic illnesses live independent lives.

They’re called “nurse navigators” and they could be the key to improving healthcare in rural settings where resources are limited.

The study showed that chronically ill seniors in rural communities who are paired with a nurse navigator are able to maintain better, healthier lives than those without help.

“Older adults living in rural areas with advanced chronic illness often live with challenging symptoms and limited healthcare services,” says Barbara Pesut, associate professor of nursing at UBC Okanagan. “They have difficulty knowing the services that are available to them and also accessing those services. This results in poor quality of life.”

Pesut, who is also the Canada Research Chair in Health, Ethics and Diversity, says support is especially important in rural communities because services are limited, or several hours’ drive away. Each visit to a specialist can be mentally and physically exhausting for the patient and their caregiver.

As part of the research, Brenda Hooper spent the past three years working as a nurse navigator in Castlegar and Trail. Twice a month she visited a chronically ill senior and answered questions about their medical care and resources in their community. Hooper also offered advice to families and caregivers.

“The study shows that the use of a nurse navigator has a clear and direct impact on older adults and their families by providing much needed support, education, advocacy, symptom management, and help making complex decisions,” says Pesut. “However, there is also an important potential role to be played by volunteers, trained in navigation, to support these older adults.”

Pesut and Hooper, along with University of Alberta researcher Wendy Duggleby, will now begin a one-year study of the feasibility of using navigation volunteers to support older adults and their families. This study will take place in Trail, Castlegar, and Nelson. Hooper will work with the volunteers to provide navigation services for older adults with advanced chronic illness living in their homes.

“Assisting the elderly in rural locations to age in place is essential to their quality of life, at end of life,” says Pesut. “An innovative way to assist older adults to age in place is to provide navigation services where a knowledgeable individual advocates, facilitates community connections, coordinates access to services and resources, and promotes active engagement of frail older adults with their community.”

Baby boomers may be the answer to finding these volunteers.

“With the retirement of the baby boomers there is this skilled group of people who want to continue to make a contribution to society,” says Pesut. “They have the potential to bring important capacity to the vital role of volunteers.”

Once the year-long pilot project is complete, researchers will have a curriculum and protocol for educating future rural volunteer healthcare navigators and a better understanding of the potential benefits of this role.

More than $210,000 in grants for the study were received from the Peter Wall Solutions Initiative, the Vancouver Foundation, and the Technology Evaluation in the Elderly. The project involves UBC Okanagan, Dalhousie University, the University of Alberta, Interior Health, and several hospice organizations.

This pilot project is a continuation of Barb Pesut’s Wall Solutions project, Palliative Care Without Borders: Rural Integrated Palliative Approach Team, which began in 2012.

This press release originally appeared on UBC Okanagan News.