CFLE in Context: Curriculum and Program Development

by Allison Ciborowski, CFLE
CFLE Network

From a young age, I have had a passion for working with seniors and persons with cognitive impairment. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of the hours I spent volunteering at a local nursing home near my hometown of Hudson, Wisconsin. At first, it was just something my mom "made me do," but I quickly began to look forward to the time each week where I'd play games, sing and talk with the residents. I remember feeling somewhat afraid of a few of the residents who had dementia. They would ask me where their children were, ask for help, yell, and sometimes cry. I felt so saddened that these individuals were completely disconnected from reality. They were often alone, and unable to effectively navigate the world around them. Once I realized how scary and isolating it must be to not be able to remember where you were, how to communicate, and to sometimes see and hear things that weren't there, my own fear vanished. From that time on, I had a special place in my heart for this vulnerable population.

Throughout high school, I pursued my love of music. I often sang at local retirement communities and healthcare centers. I had never heard of 'family studies' until my second year of college. After two semesters as voice major (and quickly realizing that I was not enough of a "diva" to survive in the performance world), I signed up for an Introduction to Family Studies class. From that moment on, I was hooked. I graduated in 2009 from Towson University with a bachelor's degree in Family Studies, in the Human Services and Community Development track. This degree afforded me the opportunity to complete two internships, and take a broad range of courses. I found this program most appealing because it prepared me to work in a variety of human services settings, with many different populations. I knew I wanted to work with people, but I wasn't quite sure in what capacity.

My mom is an amazingly compassionate and skilled hospice nurse, and her work had always fascinated me. After taking a death, dying, and bereavement course in college, I applied for a job at a non-profit hospice. A few weeks after graduation, I started working in hospice admissions. My responsibilities included providing information and coordinating registration visits for patients and families. I realized how much I enjoyed spending time with our older patients, and started looking for a position that would allow me to spend more time with this population. I was hired as an activity director at an assisted living community, where I was able to gain valuable hands-on experience working with individuals with dementia and their families.

For the past three and a half years, I have worked as the education coordinator at the Copper Ridge Institute (CRI). CRI is a not-for-profit Alzheimer's and dementia research and education organization affiliated with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Our team consists of a Director, three full-time employees (a research coordinator, education coordinator, and executive secretary), 19 part-time faculty, and several student interns.

The main goals of the Institute are to conduct and evaluate empirical research on the care and treatment of persons with dementia, and provide evidence-based education for health care professionals and family caregivers. Current studies show that most graduate schools, postdoctoral training programs, and even medical schools, are not providing adequate training on topics related to caring for and working with older adults. As a result, the current workforce in the U.S. is somewhat unprepared to provide effective care for our aging population, especially the growing number of older adults with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. Many practitioners are unable to provide effective guidance, education, and support for the millions of families who have a loved one with this condition. Our goal, and my responsibility, is to design continuing education programs that will prepare healthcare professionals to provide informed and respectful care and support for persons with dementia and for their families.

Working for a small not-for-profit, I have the opportunity to wear many different hats. As a member of CRI's Leadership Team, my main responsibilities include interacting with our faculty, assisting with curriculum development, planning and implementing education initiatives, managing continuing education applications and administration, website management, coordinating online educational offerings, creating quarterly email newsletters, interacting with external clients, and assisting with day-to-day operations. A typical day might include following up with prospective students and clients, updating course descriptions and learning objectives, scheduling courses, editing and uploading video clips from recent courses, adding announcements and content to our website and social media pages, working with faculty to develop and update courses, coordinating faculty schedules for upcoming programs, and submitting continuing education applications for upcoming courses. There is quite a bit of paperwork and administration that goes along with education administration, but I also have the opportunity to host courses and events, meet with faculty and clients, and attend conferences and seminars. In the past year, I have had the opportunity to write several small grant proposals, which has helped me learn more about program development and creating relationships with funders.

My knowledge of families and family life education has given me a greater understanding of the challenges faced by family caregivers. Specifically, my understanding of family relationships, dynamics, theories, human development, and communication has made me a more compassionate and informed professional. Having a background in family studies helps me to develop programs that address the needs of the entire family unit, not just the patient themselves. Many times, the family of a person with dementia needs just as much care and support (if not more!) than the actual patient. There are many unique challenges faced by family caregivers; especially those caring for a loved one with dementia. Caregivers can become extremely isolated, and are at a high risk for developing health and mental health problems. Recent studies have shown that the spouse of a person with dementia is at a higher risk of developing cognitive impairment themselves. My hope is that professionals who attend Institute programs will be better able to provide effective education and support for the families in their care, which will, in turn, improve the quality of life for all involved.

The knowledge and skills gained through completing courses on research methods and statistics during my degree program has been extremely beneficial. Working in an academic setting, I regularly conduct literature reviews and read peer-reviewed articles. I am also better able to contribute to the development of research initiatives at the Institute.

Some of the greatest challenges I face are not uncommon to small, non -profits. The Institute operates on a very small budget, which means we must be creative to fund our programs. Over the past few years (as all non-profits and researchers will acknowledge), it has become increasingly difficult to find grants and donors. Part of my responsibilities include ensuring that our programs are at least self-sustaining, even if they do not bring in much revenue.

Perhaps one of the most rewarding parts of my job has been planning and implementing CRI's annual Advanced Training in Dementia Care. Each year, since 1999, professionals from across the country have come to CRI for a week of intensive education and hands-on practica. Although the preparation - coordinating the schedules of more than 15 faculty (all of whom have full-time positions elsewhere!), marketing, putting together course materials, obtaining continuing education approval from more than five different boards, and organizing practicum sessions – takes many months of hard work, it is well worth the effort. What begins as a group of 15 strangers, transforms into a cohort who have learned, shared, and grown together throughout their five days at CRI.

If I could give one piece of advice to other family life educators, it would be to find the population about which you are passionate, and learn all you can in every situation. My career started off on a winding road, but through perseverance, I am now in a position where my passion and skills align. The input of family life educators brings unique perspective to the fields of human services. It is encouraging to know that I am working alongside so many dedicated family life professionals.

Allison Ciborowski received her Bachelor of Science Degree from Towson University in Family Studies and Community Development. Since graduation in 2009, Ms. Ciborowski has worked in hospice care as Director of Activities. In 2011, she joined the Leadership Team at the Copper Ridge Institute; a not for profit Alzheimer's and dementia research and education organization affiliated with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She is a member of the Human Services Advisory Board in the Department of Family Studies at Towson University, and is a Certified Family Life Educator through the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR).

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