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School becomes new home for CEAL@UNC; Work to advance assisted living to expand

UNC School of Social Work Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson speaks at podium in a room filled with people attending a reception at the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill.

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For 20 years, the national Center for Excellence in Assisted Living (CEAL) has focused on advancing the well-being of people who live and work in assisted living through research, practice, and policy. These efforts will expand and intensify as the center becomes CEAL@UNC in a new home within the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the fifth top-rated public university in the country.

Sheryl Zimmerman, Ph.D.
Sheryl Zimmerman, Ph.D.

Based within UNC’s School of Social Work and supported by UNC Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research, CEAL@UNC will be led by University Kenan Distinguished Professor Sheryl Zimmerman, co-director of the Sheps Center’s Program on Aging, Disability, and Long-Term Care. Zimmerman, CEAL@UNC’s newly named executive director, is a leader in assisted living research and care for people with dementia as well as an internationally recognized expert with more than 25 years of scholarship focused on long-term care services and supports for older adults.

A reception to celebrate the center was held on Feb. 23, 2023, at the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill. The event included remarks from Zimmerman, UNC Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz, School of Social Work Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson and Associate Dean for Advancement Kandace Farrar, Shep’s Center Director Mark Holmes, current chair of CEAL’s Advisory Board Doug Pace and previous chair Lindsay Schwartz.

With the number of Americans residing in assisted living communities nearing 1 million and growing, CEAL@UNC’s work is vital for ensuring that older adults nationwide have access to quality and supportive care that enables them to age with dignity and respect, Zimmerman said. UNC’s historic leadership in assisted living research positions the University as an ideal home for the national center, she added, as does the Sheps Center’s work to promote interdisciplinary programs and systems-level research and offer consultation, technical assistance, and training,

“CEAL@UNC will work to expand the center’s capacity nationwide to develop evidence, bolster the workforce, and promote the adoption of evidence-based practices and policies relevant to assisted living,” Zimmerman said. “This work will be conducted through close partnerships with other universities, organizations, and diverse stakeholder groups.

“Given that we’re talking about an entire system of care for older adults with diverse needs, the directions for CEAL@UNC are virtually limitless.”

Key priorities will also address the diverse levels of care that are used to manage and improve the health of older adults, especially those with acute and chronic health problems; payment options for assisted living; and medical and mental health care needs, including for people living with dementia, Zimmerman said.

Such a focus is well-suited for UNC School of Social Work given that clinical social workers now make up the nation’s largest group of mental health service providers, Denby-Brinson said.

“The field of social work brings the evidence-based research, practice and policy to the assisted living profession and can help to ensure that our older Americans receive the quality support and services they deserve,” Denby-Brinson said. “I am especially enthusiastic about providing a home for CEAL@UNC because of the strength of education our School of Social Work is already providing to our future direct practice and mental health care workers. I am also thankful for Dr. Zimmerman’s leadership within our School and the field of aging, both of which will further contribute to the support and success of CEAL@UNC.”

Formed in response to a report and request from the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, CEAL was designed to ensure more consistent quality in assisted living services nationwide. Transitioning the organization to a “well-respected research institution” strengthens the organization’s original mission, Schwartz said.

“During my tenure as chair, one of my top priorities was for CEAL to be more involved in research that would impact both policy and practice,” said Schwartz, founder and principal of Workforce & Quality Innovations, LLC. “With Dr. Zimmerman leading CEAL@UNC, this priority will be expanded upon to make an even bigger impact in our profession.”

Pace, senior director of long-term and community-based services with the Alzheimer’s Association and CEAL’s incoming Advisory Board chair, agreed.

“The need for high quality, person-centered assisted living communities will continue to grow, especially for persons living with dementia,” he said. “CEAL@UNC’s achievements will advance the well-being of the people who live and work in assisted living.”

CEAL@UNC event photo credits: UNC Office of Communications