Worcester State & Tatnuck Park Partnership a Win for Students and Seniors

a college student assists a resident

When Ellyn Schmalzer participated in occupational therapy projects at Tatnuck Park at Worcester while a student at Worcester State University over a decade ago, she never imagined today she’d be teaching those same projects as a full-time assistant professor.

This summer, Worcester State and Tatnuck Park, a Benchmark assisted living and Mind & Memory Care community, resumed its 12-year-long partnership, now under Schmalzer’s direction, after putting it on hold for two and a half years due to COVID.

“It’s been a wonderful reunion between the students and our residents who are mostly in their 80s and 90s,” said Tatnuck Park’s programming director Ellen Meagher. “We keep hearing how excited they are to have their Worcester State students back. Everyone looks forward to it.”

Partnerships between academic institutions and senior living communities can create a win-win for both students and seniors. A wide variety of programs provide students with real-life experiences while bringing purposeful activities to residents that increase their socialization and physical, sensory and cognitive skills.

This summer’s program tested the students’ competence in developing, commanding and connecting with groups. Meagher, Schmalzer and the students collaborated to identify topics. Drawing on the residents’ interest in art, students were paired with a small group of residents on both the traditional assisted living and memory care sides of the community to create gratitude journals, handprint lilies and other creative projects.

Previous offerings have featured music bingo, dancing and fitness.

“It’s not about the specific project; it’s more about understanding what each resident does in their daily life and what’s interfering with their activities. Also, providing a meaningful connection between our first-year students and the residents,” said Ellyn.

Worcester State and Tatnuck Park are excited to embark on a new project together — a falls prevention pilot program – in October.

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), one out of four older adults will fall in the U.S. annually. About 36 million falls are reported among older adults each year — resulting in more than 32,000 deaths.

For Worcester State, the community has filled a critical need for providing its senior and graduate students with additional hands-on experience with an older population.

Students will be paired one-on-one with assisted living residents. Weekly for a month, strength and balance will be evaluated and dynamic and static balance exercises focusing on ankle, knee and hip strength will be tailored to residents’ needs.

“This program is really exciting because we won’t just be teaching exercises, we’ll be teaching how to integrate this into their normal, daily routine,” said Jessica O’Connor, academic fieldwork coordinator for Worcester State.

Jessica’s goal is for students to gain additional experience working one-on-one with seniors, setting weekly goals and becoming more comfortable in teaching this program as another tool.

In addition to the Worcester State falls prevention program, Tatnuck Park offers a comprehensive, physical therapist-created program called Benchmark Strong that works to improve residents’ balance, posture and alignment. A combination of educational and fitness classes occurs weekly and is aimed at improving balance and reducing falls.

“We are excited to provide enhanced evaluation and education for such an important health concern that goes beyond our traditional offerings,” said Jennifer LaCroix, executive director of Tatnuck Park.

In the seven and a half years she’s led the community, Jennifer has seen the Worcester State partnership flourish and its positive impact on her residents. “The energy and knowledge the students and staff bring to our community is tremendous. We feel very fortunate to be able to provide this type of programming to our residents.”

Tatnuck Park at Worcester