Ecumen Partners with Universities to Address Rural Senior Care Shortage

A new $1.9 million grant to address a rural senior care shortage in Minnesota aims to attract students to the field of senior living before they graduate.

Ecumen, a non-profit senior housing provider that operates in many rural Minnesota communities, and the statewide system of Minnesota State College and Universities (MnSCU) are collaborating to introduce students to senior living through a new workforce development initiative called Ecumen Scholars, to be funded by the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation grant over the next two years. 

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 15% of rural Minnesota residents are age 65 or older, and some counties have a population comprised of 20% to 25% seniors. At a time when demand for senior care is increasing, rural Minnesota’s nursing workforce is shrinking as more nurses retire and fewer nurses replace them, industry experts say.

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“We were hearing from our administration, housing managers and executive directors in our rural communities that they were having a difficult time hiring nurses,” Judy Blaseg, vice president of philanthropy at Ecumen, tells SHN.

Experts predict that the United States will be short substantially more than 260,000 registered nurses by 2025 unless it expands nursing education “quickly and dramatically,” according to a 2010 report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Identifying a workforce problem in its rural communities, Ecumen reached out to HealthForce Minnesota, a MnSCU Center of Excellence, as well as other potential academic partners, and found that MnSCU was a good fit because it has locations near Ecumen’s rural properties. Ecumen then applied for the grant.

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“We are very pleased to be partnering with Ecumen to educate and train more Minnesotans in a field that is critical to the health and well-being of our seniors,” says Steven Rosenstone, chancellor of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, in a written statement.  

Recruiting fresh talent has been a long-standing challenge for many senior living operators, who say many students interested in health care often bypass the senior living industry.

“When students decide they want to be a nurse, they typically want to be in pediatrics or an Ob/Gyn,” Blaseg says. “Through Ecumen Scholars students will be able to experience every level of senior care and this amazing line of work.”

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Beginning in 2015, students in MnSCU’s registered nurse programs will be able to apply for up to eight Ecumen Nursing Leadership Fellowships as part of the Ecumen Scholars program. Each fellow will receive a $3,000 summer living stipend and will work closely with a director of nursing at an Ecumen location for 120 hours. Students will also learn about Ecumen Awakenings, which is Ecumen’s integrated care program to improve Alzheimer’s care and life quality by reducing psychotropic medications.

Students will be able to experience different levels of management and meet with Ecumen leadership staff, Blaseg says, adding that some current administrative staff members have nursing backgrounds. They will also work with seniors at a variety of care levels and settings including transitional care or rehabilitation, assisted living, dementia care and home care.  

And while some McSCU nursing students have already participated in clinical rotations at a few Ecumen sites, gerontological clinical rotations will be available for students at all participating Ecumen sites with assistance from the new grant. 

Those students who go on to have a career at one of Ecumen’s rural locations within a year of graduating from the MnSCU nursing program will be eligible for financial bonus payments at the one-year, three-year, five-year and 10-year anniversaries of the nurses’ start date. These bonus payments, made possible by the grant, can be used to repay student loans, and the bonus amounts will increase with each subsequent anniversary.

The grant will also allow Ecumen employees and residents at Ecumen Scholar sites to have the opportunity to send their high-school age children free-of-charge to summer Scrubs Camp, which is co-Sponsored by MnSCU and HealthForce Minnesota. The camp is a five-day program that introduces high-school students to the health care field.

“If you have a parent who works in senior care or housing you’re typically far more open to that as a career yourself,” Blaseg says about how the the grant is being used to also inspire younger students to pursue a career in the senior living industry. “It’s not just a crisis in rural Minnesota.”

Written by Cassandra Dowell

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