But it’s also an environment they’ve made into a home for the 120 residents who live at the Palisades. For their part, they get access to the latest technology and research on how to care for an aging population, and keep them active, healthy and engaged throughout their lives.
The Palisades is more than just a lab — it’s a unique partnership between the owners and the university.
“We have a depth here, that really isn’t duplicated anywhere else,” said Dr. Sarah Qualls, a professor geropsychology at UCCS and a leading researcher in the field. “That means that the residents benefit — and our students have access to hands-on research in an environment that they can’t get anywhere else.”
Qualls is quick to point out that the researchers don’t treat the residents like they are lab mice. Instead, the research is built into the everyday life at the Palisades. And it’s been that way since the senior living facility was first envisioned.
“We had the professors’ input on everything,” said Toby Gannett, executive director of the Palisades. “So, you’ll notice the dining rooms are smaller, friendlier. It’s not a cafeteria atmosphere at all.”
That’s because even the elderly in the independent living section of the Palisades could have trouble hearing in an overcrowded, noisy room. That hearing trouble could lead the resident to start eating dinner alone — and increasing isolation.
“Sometimes, that’s the biggest problem we face,” Gannett said. “How do we keep people involved, engaged? For some people, it isn’t an issue. There’s an activity, they’ll do it — yoga, exercise, trips, eating in the dining room. But for others, they have to be coaxed out of their rooms.”
The most recent research was conducted for residents of the assisted living branch of the Palisades. A group of residents participated in exercise classes on a variety of machines every day. At the end of the research period, some had improved their mobility 400 percent.
“That’s unheard of,” Qualls said. “And it’s gratifying to create a program that works, and that people are interested in, engaged by and want more of. They really enjoyed the program, and the results were amazing.”
For Qualls, the important part of the process is not only learning about what works for seniors who might have cognitive or physical limitations, but also doing it in a way that keeps them engaged.
For Gannett, it means that sometimes, some of his residents moved from assisted living — where they need help moving around — to independent living, where they are more on their own.
In order to track progress of the research and the residents, the Palisades staff and its partner professors created a proprietary program that covers every single resident. It lets staff know what the patient is like, their preferences, their families and their activity schedule. The online program is so detailed, it even includes favorite memories from the past, designed to help calm the residents that are a part of the “memory unit,” at Palisades.
The software isn’t commercially available yet, but could be soon. It’s just one tangible benefit from the partnership with UCCS, Gannett said.
Another can be seen in the residents who have Alzheimer’s or dementia. Instead of trying to convince or cajole patients into living in the “now,” Gannett said the staff has been trained to work with the patient, and where they are at any particular moment.
“If it’s 1940 to the patient, it’s 1940 to the staff,” he said. ‘That’s where the computer program comes in. The staff can talk to the patient about family, about children, about husbands and events that occurred then. It keeps them calm.”
Training the staff falls to Qualls. She trains every single member of the staff every two weeks, and helps them deal with some of the most difficult residents.
“It’s important to let people know that there can be solutions,” she said. “So I work with everyone. That was one of the requirements when we started this — that we couldn’t focus research on a single area, we had to provide research and services to all the residents.”
The key is that the UCCS staff — which includes professors, PhD candidates, graduate and undergraduate students — blend in with the rest of the Palisades staff.
Something else makes the Palisades/UCCS partnership work, Gannett said. The close-knit structure means that doctors talk to specialists that talk to therapists. It combines to create a holistic approach to care that benefits the patients.
“We’ve had patients come in with 12 or 13 medications,” he said. “And then, get sick with something like a urinary tract infection. When you’re dealing with Alzheimer’s that means that the patient’s attitude and behavior changes — which leads to more behavioral drugs when all they really needed was an antibiotic. We make sure people all work together to prevent that — and to keep people off unnecessary medications.”
The team effort benefits patients, but at no additional cost. In fact, Palisades is less expensive than some of the other assisted living properties in town.
The partnership makes good business sense too, Qualls said. Not only does the Palisades enjoy a national reputation — it’s won several awards — but keeping patients happier and healthier reduces turnover.
“Moving to an independent living apartment can be a big change,” Qualls said. “It’s a little like leaving your high school bedroom and going to a dorm. There are more people, it’s noisier, it can be intense. But through this partnership — and really you have to credit the owners for spending the extra money — it eases that transition.”
It’s a tradeoff, Gannett said. Less money spent on things like health care means more money can be spent on wellness and quality of life programs.
“The wellness aspect of it, that’s what really sets us apart,” he said. “We created new products that Palisades holds the patent too — all that’s important. But what’s really important is how the residents are taken care of, how they’re healthier.”
That’s not to say that everyone improves , Qualls said. The elderly population is in decline physically and mentally.
“So we don’t necessarily make everyone well,” she said. “We can’t do that. People age. But we can make sure they have the wellness program that benefits them physically, emotionally and cognitively.”