Big Lessons in Staff Training – From Behavioral Health to Senior Living

Assisted living communities are often compared to their counterparts in skilled nursing, home health, and other areas of senior care. However many in the industry know that while they may seem similar on the surface, there are massive differences in AL from both a business and procedural perspective.

In fact,  AL charting and operations have huge overlaps with an unlikely counterpart – behavioral health communities.

Comparisons are not often drawn considering these two types of communities serve a different resident base, but when you look closely, there are many philosophies and techniques that can provide massive benefits in both environments. This is especially true when it comes to training, retaining, and hiring all levels of staff.


It should be no surprise that well-trained staff are foundational to the success of both assisted living and behavioral health communities. However, specification plays a much larger role in training clinicians and direct care staff within behavioral health for a number of reasons, partly due to the great breadth of needs and services needed under this umbrella.

The term “behavioral health” covers everything from developmental disability to acute psychological disorder. As a result, staff must be trained with a very specific skill set  to complement behavioral, mental, and emotional needs of the residential population.

Browns Living is an operator of both senior living and behavioral health communities in Central Wisconsin. David Thewes, their Vice President of Operations, is in the unique position of being able to directly compare training within both environments:

“The training processes start out the same for all DHS [Department of Human Services] licensed communities. Everyone needs to have the basic training: medication, standard precautions, fire safety, and First Aid. Then, there is the required internal training, which DHS does not govern. They let the company choose its own training and method.”

It is up to individual behavioral health communities to implement site-specific programs.This highlights differing approaches to continuing education in senior care and behavioral health.

“Where AL typically does standard continuing education, a BH community might focus specifically on a topic such as psychotropic medications and their side effects, or on new de-escalation techniques such as the use of humor to calm a crisis.”

Behavioral health caregivers, in addition to standard regulatory training, are often well-versed in personality management techniques. More and more successful and forward-looking AL communities are thinking outside the box with similar techniques, especially when working with Memory Care residents.

This focus on specialized training can be extremely beneficial to assisted living communities.  If your staff is prepared to address the specific needs of your residents outside of the obvious activities of daily living and med administration, your community will be positioned  to provide a truly exceptional level of service and care. Tuning in to what is beneath the surface – the extreme emotional turmoil that comes with losing the ability to care for oneself – is vital to understanding the more complex needs of the individuals you serve.

Hiring & Retention

Another area where leaders within AL and behavioral health communities devote a significant amount of focus is hiring and keeping the staff they dedicate so much time to training.

Michelle McCorkle, the Chief Compliance Officer for Aloria Health, an innovative eating disorder treatment organization in Milwaukee, WI, also has significant background working in both assisted living and behavioral health settings. She notes that Aloria’s community has found success in requiring a higher level of education for their staff than is the industry norm. While many facilities don’t have those same requirements, Aloria’s “direct care staff typically either have a bachelor’s degree (for “therapeutic assistants” and diet techs) or are CNAs.”

When considering the difference between hiring for each setting, it’s important to note that funding can play a huge role in the decision. “Behavioral health facilities are more complex and also definitely have more stringent regulations, but you typically also have higher margins which makes it possible to pay staff reasonably well. [This] helps with staff retention. In ALFs it’s really hard to find and retain good staff, but the day to day operations are more straightforward.”

In past posts, we’ve discussed the need for AL operators to empower and activate their staff. Taking the behavioral health approach to training and education could be an excellent way to accomplish this. The people who choose to work in direct care environments aren’t doing it for the big bucks or reliable hours – they’re looking to make a difference. Fostering these empathetic qualities and training staff on using them to their advantage provides exciting learning opportunities, and sets your community apart as a more desirable place of employment.

At the same time, a thoughtful continuing education program will help your care staff view their work as more of a ‘career’ than just a ‘job’. With this kind of mindset, staff will be forging closer relationships to residents. It is essential for your staff to feel prepared and comfortable on the job–their work is stressful, demanding, and emotionally complex. To keep work from becoming overwhelming for your staff, provide them with tools to ease their burdens and make them more successful!


To see for yourself how ALIS can free up room in your current training regimen, click here.