Investigating Supportive Livings Impact on Health Care

Family medicine researcher looks at the impact of loneliness and social isolation on the use of health care.

Danica Erickson - 18 November 2019

The province of Alberta has made significant financial investments into expanding the supportive living model of care for older adults yet little is known about this care setting and the quality of care it provides to older adults. Stephanie Chamberlain, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow with the Department of Family Medicine researching health system use by lonely and/or socially isolated older adults living in supportive living homes. She hopes that this project will be the first step in her research program aimed at assessing and alleviating loneliness and social isolation across continuing care settings.

Continuing care services in Canada exist on a spectrum ranging from home care to long-term care (i.e., nursing home care). Alberta is one of the few provinces to significantly expand the intermediary option known as supportive living. Supportive living is intended to let people live independently in a homelike environment while still offering some medical and support services. The number of supportive living facilities has increased significantly in Alberta; however, research into this setting is limited. "Supportive living has grown in the absence of rigorous data, which is why researchers like me and Andrea (Gruneir) are really interested in it. Some research suggests that these residents are similar nursing home residents, and if that's the case, they are not getting the same level of care as nursing home residents" explains Chamberlain.

Another benefit to doing her current research in Alberta are continuing to develop the working relationships that Chamberlain has with Alberta Health (AH) and Alberta Health Services during her work on previous research projects. Her postdoctoral fellowship, which is funded by the Alzheimer Society of Canada, will use provincial health administrative data to better understand health and service use of supportive living residents who are lonely and/or socially isolated.

Loneliness and social isolation are a public health issue, and have significant negative effects on health and well-being. Research on loneliness and social isolation in older adults has largely focused on individuals living in the community; little is known about those who live in continuing care settings like supportive living. Poor social connection has been associated with increased risk of hospitalization and transfer to nursing homes, which supportive living was intended to avoid.

In future, her work will include primary data collection related to the assessment of loneliness and social isolation in continuing care. In particular, she aims to test and validate survey tools that assess loneliness in older adults living in continuing care settings. From this work, she hopes to use to develop interventions that integrate direct care staff and will ultimately reduce resident loneliness and isolation and improve the quality of care provided to older adults receiving continuing care.

Chamberlain's future program of research will include older adults living in care settings as well as their paid and unpaid caregivers as members of the research team. She knows from her own first-hand experience working in nursing homes that including residents and direct care staff is crucial to improvement efforts. This approach, known as integrated knowledge translation or citizen (patient) engaged research, is crucial to ensuring that research findings reflect the lived experience. Integrating persons with lived experience into her team reflects her belief that older adults are more than their age or a diagnosis.