Health and Housing Specialists: Supporting Aging in Place in Subsidized Housing

by Published On: Sep 05, 2012

Many affordable senior housing properties employ service coordinators to help residents live successfully in their apartments. A number of studies document a broad satisfaction with the service coordinator position. 

Even so, it may be time to take a new look at the role that housing staff can play in supporting residents as their health and social needs become increasingly complex.

Researchers at the Institute on Aging at Portland State University (PSU) recently took that new look at housing staff. The product of their investigation was a job description for a “health and housing specialist” that incorporates elements of social work and health care.

Housing and Health Specialist: A Job Description

The PSU team set out to identify the staffing needs for an “aging in place model” in subsidized housing properties. Through interviews and focus groups with resident services staff, property managers, service providers and residents, the team identified eight broad tasks that a “housing and health specialist” would carry out. 

They also listed the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA) required to perform those tasks. (See the full report for details of tasks and KSAs.)

Some tasks – including assessment and care coordination/case management – are not typically part of the service coordinator’s job. Some study participants questioned the feasibility of expanding the service coordinator’s current role, given the existing workload of most service coordinators and the breadth of knowledge that an expanded role would require.

Researchers responded to these concerns by proposing that housing communities could also take a team-based approach to the housing and health specialist position. Two examples of this team-based approach include:

  • The WellElder Program. This program, developed by Northern California Presbyterian Homes & Services, pairs a service coordinator with a nurse health educator to help residents meet their range of health and social needs.
  • The Support and Services at Home (SASH) program. This program, developed by Cathedral Square Corporation, embeds an enhanced service coordinator role within a team-based approach. The program is anchored by the SASH coordinator who, in partnership with a wellness nurse, conducts a comprehensive assessment of program participants and helps them develop and implement a healthy aging plan. This property-based team also works closely with community service partners. 

Housing Staff Play a Valuable Role

It’s important to underscore the fact that service coordinators are invaluable to housing communities around the country. However, given the growing recognition that housing properties can play a critical role in the coordination and delivery of health and aging services, it may be time to enhance the service coordinator’s role. Such an expansion could serve to maximize the impact of housing plus services strategies.

Housing providers are not the only stakeholders who need to reexamine the role of service coordinators. Housing, health and aging services agencies and policy makers must also recognize the potential for housing property staff to assist their residents while also supporting public policy goals calling for improved care and lower costs.

They must provide adequate funding for a service coordinator/housing and health specialist role with a manageable case load in all affordable housing properties. Equally important, that funding must support staff with the knowledge and skills needed to meet the role’s full potential.


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