Treating an Aging Population: What You Need to Know About Geriatric Nursing

geriatric nursing

The population of the United States is getting older. In fact, by 2030, all of the massive post-World-War-II baby boom generation will be at least 65-years old, according to U.S. Census Bureau.* That means 20 percent of all residents will be of retirement age, according to their projections.

As the population grows older, the need for healthcare will only increase, and the need for geriatric nurses will rise as well. With the aging population comes a host of healthcare concerns and pressures: osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, cancer, fibrosis and more. These conditions, combined with a shift in general care when dealing with elderly patients, introduce new complexities to the world of nursing—so much so that an entire nursing specialty–geriatric nursing–exists.

So how is geriatric nursing different from regular nursing? Are there important things you should know about the field? We connected with some nurses in the field of gerontological nursing to curate professional insight on the ins and outs of geriatric nursing.

The basics of geriatric nursing

There are a lot of different factors that go into a profession in geriatric nursing. You may be thinking of working as a nurse who only specializes in working with elderly patients, or you might be considering working in another specialty where older adults will still pass through your hospital wing. Check out these commonly asked questions and find out if this nursing specialty is right for you!

What does a geriatric nurse do?

Geriatric nurses complete many of the same duties and tasks that general care nurses do, but applied to an older population. They have to be aware of commonly occurring geriatric symptoms, advocate for the healthcare of their patients and work with patients to evaluate which care plan is right for them.

Elderly patients often deal with symptoms related to cardiovascular, neurological and psychological health. A geriatric nurse is acutely familiar with these symptoms and can help their patients navigate the onset of confusing or painful issues. Additionally, geriatric nurses may also assist elderly patients as they factor insurance coverage and retirement into their care plans.

How do I become a geriatric nurse?

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that you’ll need to attend Nursing school to pursue a geriatric nursing career. The level of Nursing education you’ll need to pursue can vary—both LPNs and RNs can work with geriatric populations. While you’re pursuing your education, make sure to focus on geriatric-related training and classes. Once you’ve completed your schooling you’ll need to pass either the NCLEX-PN or NCLEX-RN licensure exam to be eligible to work.

From this point, you’re likely eligible for many geriatric nursing positions, particularly in long-term care (LTC) facilities. A resume that reflects a clear interest in working with older populations is also a definite plus—so be sure to seek out volunteer opportunities if possible.

Additionally, RNs may want to consider a gerontological nursing certification. To achieve this certification, you’ll need at least two years of registered nursing under your belt. This certification is by no means mandatory but can be a nice nursing resume-booster.

Does the patient protocol differ when working with the elderly?

Geriatric nursing is very similar to general care nursing in that many elderly patients still need the same basic care that other patients need. That said, if you work in a long-term care facility or in a home health nursing role, then your day-to-day work will differ from that of nurses who work on a hospital floor substantially. Your work will focus more on managing patient medication and symptoms, tending to injuries and assisting patients with their treatment. Another difference to consider is the potential for patients’ mental acuity to be affected by dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Char Hu, founder of Georgetown Living, says special care needs to be taken by nurses who work with these patients.

“Patient protocol is significantly different when you are treating or interacting with a person with dementia,” says Hu. “Their logical ability, by definition, is compromised, so the very information a clinician needs to make an educated decision is suspect. This can be very deceiving, especially if the person is in the early stages of dementia where their communication skills are close to normal.”

When working with elderly patients, you may also find that it takes them longer to complete basic care tasks for themselves. While younger patients may catch on more quickly to care instructions, you may need to be more intentional with older adults. “Self-care and independence are more important than getting all your own work done in a specified time,” says Marilyn Smith-Stoner, RN and nursing educator. “It takes longer to help them care for themselves than do things for them.”

How do geriatric nurses work with the families of elderly patients?

As a geriatric nurse, you will also work closely with a patient’s loved ones. While in many cases, this will be similar to what other nurses do, it can be challenging when the patient is suffering from a personality-altering disease like dementia or Alzheimer’s. “Sometimes even close family members do not know the extent of what is occurring,” says Hu. “This can make a sudden visit to the hospital or clinic a very jarring reality check.”

It’s important to practice good communication and be up front and honest with family members about what’s going on. What’s key is presenting the facts with an extra side of empathy so that family members also feel cared for. “Communication techniques, of course, vary by what the family would be most receptive to,” explains Hu. “This process is typically not accomplished immediately, but the goal is to get the family thinking about making the practical choices regarding long-term care and not dismiss what is on the horizon.”

Family dynamics can be tricky to traverse in geriatric nursing, but with the right training, you’ll be able to guide your patient’s loved ones to the right decision and the proper care plan.

Are you ready to pursue geriatric nursing?

If you have a soft spot for the elderly, great communication and relationship skills and passion for compassion, then geriatric nursing might be the nursing specialty for you! We’re facing a huge demographic shift, and as the number of older persons in the U.S. increases, so will the need for potential nurses like you.

Want to learn more about what it’s like to work as a geriatric nurse? Our article, “The Beginner’s Guide to Working in a Nursing Home,” takes a deep dive into one of the most common settings for geriatric nurses to work in.


*United States Census Bureau, Older People Projected to Outnumber Children for First Time in U.S. History, [accessed June 19, 2018] https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2018/cb18-41-population-projections.html

Lauren Elrick

Lauren is a freelance writer for Collegis education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She enjoys helping current and potential students choose the path that helps them achieve their educational goals.

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