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

There were 44.7 million persons over the age of 65 in the U.S. in 2013, according to statistics from the Administration on Aging (AOA). That’s about 14 percent of the U.S. population, or one in seven Americans! The AOA also projects there will be 98 million older persons in America by 2060. The U.S. healthcare system is already starting to feel the burden of so many elderly citizens.

As the population grows older, the need for healthcare will only increase, and the need for geriatric nurses will rise as well. This aging population brings a host of healthcare concerns and pressures: osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, 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—particularly in the realm of geriatric nursing.

So how is geriatric nursing different from regular nursing? Are there important things you should know about the field before you pursue your nursing career? We connected with some geriatric nurses 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 dealing with elderly patients, or you might be considering working in another specialty where older adults will often pass through your hospital wing. Check out these commonly asked questions to help determine 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. They must advocate for the healthcare of their elderly patients and work with them and their families to evaluate which care plan is right for their situation. The biggest difference is throughout all of their normal nursing duties, they must constantly be aware of commonly occurring geriatric symptoms and specialize in working with this population.

There are a handful of common symptoms that elderly patients often encounter, such as cardiovascular, neurological, psychological and sensory- or pain-related manifestations. A geriatric nurse must be familiar with these symptoms and be prepared to help the patient navigate the onset of confusing or painful issues. Geriatric nurses can also assist elderly patients as they factor insurance coverage and retirement into their care plans.

How do I become a geriatric nurse?

Like all nursing professionals, you’ll have to attend nursing school to pursue geriatric nursing. Choosing your program is the first step. Once you figure out details like the type of college you want to attend, location, cost and the length of time your program will take, the right option for you will become clear. While you’re pursuing your LPN, ADN or BSN, it’s helpful to focus on geriatric-related training and classes if possible.

When it comes time for you to become a nurse, you’ll have to pass the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX). It can be a formidable test to take, but don’t worry—there are plenty of resources online and your professors are there to help you. Once you pass the NCLEX, you’re ready to begin your career as a nurse.

For further experience, consider earning a gerontological nursing certification. To achieve this certification, you’ll need at least two years of registered nursing experience under your belt, but this type of credential will give you a head start as you contend with other nurses competing for the position. There are plenty of other focuses that will give you an advantage over other candidates as well.

“Emphasis on pharmacology and psychoactive medication focus are good directions to take for geriatric nurse education,” advises Susan Finsaas, RN and national health services director for The Goodman Group. “Medication problems are by far the leading cause of hospitalization admissions within a senior living community environment.”

Does the patient protocol differ when working with the elderly?

Patient protocol does differ depending on the case. Geriatric nursing is very similar to general care nursing in that many elderly patients still need the same basic care that every patient needs. However, the profession differs greatly in other areas. For example, elderly patients often suffer from similar symptoms and may need help navigating insurance options or deciding if it’s time to transition into assisted living.

“Patient protocol is significantly different when you are treating or interacting with a person with dementia,” says Char Hu, founder of Georgetown Living. “Their logical ability, by definition, is compromised so the very information a clinician needs to make an educated decision is suspect.” Hu explains that this can be particularly complex when a patient is in the early stages of dementia because their communication skills may seem normal even if that’s not the case.

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 I work with the families of elderly patients?

As a geriatric nurse, you will also work closely with a patient’s loved ones. This can seem daunting, especially when a personality-altering disease, like dementia or Alzheimer’s, is at hand.

“Sometimes even close family members do not know the extent of what is occurring,” Hu says. “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 happening. Make a point to present the facts with an extra side of empathy so family members also feel cared for.

“Communication techniques of course vary by what the family would be most receptive to,” Hu explains. “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 next of kin 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, have great communication and relationship skills and have a meticulous love for details, then geriatric nursing might be for you! As the senior population in the U.S. increases, so will the need for potential nurses like you!

Focused specialists like geriatric nurses are critical in the healthcare field. Concentrating your career in these areas can have its perks. Learn about 8 Great Nursing Specialties with Exciting Earning Potential.


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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