UBC Okanagan Canada Research Chair Barb Pesut and Health Navigator Brenda Hooper look over a workbook created to help train volunteer health navigators to work with chronically ill seniors living in rural communities.

Pilot program training volunteers to care for chronically ill

“Yes, people with life limiting chronic illness do benefit from having a nurse navigator visit them on a regular basis..." ~ Brenda Hooper

With any research project you are answering a question, says Brenda Hooper, a retired community health nurse who remains active in the home healthcare field.

During a three-year University of British Columbia (UBC) study that positioned Hooper in a new “nurse navigator” role for chronically ill seniors in Trail and Castlegar, the answer was clear.

“Yes, people with life limiting chronic illness do benefit from having a nurse navigator visit them on a regular basis for help,” she explained.

“So if that made a difference, the question is, “Can a volunteer be trained to be a navigator, with the back up of a nurse? So that’s what we are working on now.”

The pilot program called Trail/Castlegar Augmented Response (TCARE) recently morphed into the new project that now includes participants and volunteers living in Nelson.

Seven people from the three cities were trained to become healthcare navigators last week.

Volunteers with a medical background or experience working with hospice, were selected for the three-day course that essentially has them taking over the role Hooper filled during the TCARE study.

Twice a month she would make home visits to answer questions about medical care, resources in the community, as well as offering advice to families and caregivers.

That directive continues, but enables educated volunteers to help chronically ill seniors maintain better, healthier lives through their knowledge of available health care resources and services.

Participants could be dealing with a range of long term illnesses, including cancer, chronic lung diseases, heart failure, and other serious debilitating issues.

The role moves palliative care upstream and into the population with chronic illness, said Hooper.

“They are not palliative, they are struggling, when things start to get worse and they’re having to go to the doctor a lot,” she explained. “Often it’s in between first diagnosis and the end stages when end-of-life care may be required.”

Hooper describes the stage of illness like,’Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall.’

“Because they may go crashing down,” she said. “When I use those words with people they nod their heads.”

For those who feel they might be missing key pieces of information regarding their condition and treatment, Hooper helps the person sift through complicated information they receive from physicians and other healthcare specialists.

“The new training program for specialized volunteers will help them assist in ways that were noted during the (nurse navigator’s) time with that person,” she added.

Almost half the original 25 TCARE participants are part of the project’s extension, and volunteer navigators are matched to each, much like hospice and bereavement programs.

The study is currently recruiting participants in Nelson. People interested in becoming volunteer navigators or who know an older adult who might benefit from navigator services can contact Hooper at brenda.hooper@ubc.ca.

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 benefits of this role.

More than $210,000 in grants for this study has been received from the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, 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.

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