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Putting families first

Jennifer Harrison Elder, Ph.D., R.N., has made a career out of caring for patients’ family members, but it didn’t start that way.

After she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, Elder was hired as a nurse in the Shands at UF surgical intensive care unit. While there, she noticed a lot of attention was placed on the patients, but their families often sat for long hours in waiting rooms, confused and scared.

When Elder became the nursing director of UF&Shands’ children’s mental health unit, where she cared for children with autism and other disorders, she decided to find a way to help the families of her patients, too.

“I saw over and over again, as we were nearing discharge, the families were just frantic to know what to do and how to intervene,” Elder said. “So I developed a program to work with the families throughout the child’s stay.”

The program allowed parents to test out intervention techniques with which the child had previously shown success.

“That was really the birth of my parent training program,” Elder said.

In 1981, Elder and her colleagues created a parent training intervention program that included goals such as improving parent-child interactions, educating family members and reducing stress.

“I did the training initially with mothers and then I found no one else in the family learned to do it,” Elder said.

That was when one of her graduate assistants suggested she try training fathers.

At the time it was a novel idea, Elder said. But she found that the fathers she trained were interested and very effective.

Elder said many families found success in the training program, although there was one case that stood out. During the course of her program, one 5-year-old boy made eye contact with his father and said “Daddy” for the first time in his life.

“We were all sitting there videotaping them playing with tears streaming down our faces,” Elder said.

Besides continuing her more than 20 years of research, Elder is also a professor, associate dean of research and doctoral program director for the College of Nursing.

“She is so passionate it’s almost contagious,” said Erica Self, a current Ph.D. student in the college.

Self met Elder when she was a junior pursuing a nursing degree at UF. She started working as one of Elder’s lab assistants in 2005. Self and her colleagues were in charge of interviewing the fathers after they had gone through the intervention program.

“Once I started working with her I started realizing how interested I was in the research,” Self said.

Elder has helped more than 100 families and she has no plans to stop. Most recently she developed an animated cartoon for children ages 8 to 12, aimed at training siblings of children with autism.

“In all likelihood, the siblings are going to outlive the parents and they will be assuming some sort of caregiver role,” Elder said. “We’re wondering if we empower them early and they see their role as important early on, if that might make a difference in a lifetime.”

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