One of the profession’s most rapidly growing specializations
Nursing is a profession that is increasingly growing in both popularity and need, and one specialization in particularly high demand is gerontology. According to the AARP, in 2011, the first of the baby boomers reached the retirement age of 65, and for the next 18 years, 10,000 Americans will turn 65 each day.
At age 65, individuals begin to qualify for Medicare, and with the recent implementation of the Affordable Care Act, millions more Americans now have access to healthcare. Because of this increase, more healthcare providers are needed to serve these individuals, which means nurses and nurse educators are in high demand. Due in part to longer life expectancy, as well as the influx of baby boomers, gerontology, the nursing specialization pertaining to older adults, is one of the fastest growing specializations and promises to continue to be for years to come.
Gerontology nurses have several critical tasks: to support healthy aging, maximize functioning and quality of life, and be a health advocate for those who cannot effectively advocate for themselves. To successfully accomplish these goals with their older patients, nurses often need to work in collaboration with families.
Communication Is Key
Seniors are not all the same. Gerontology nurses treat individuals from age 65 (“new old”) to 105 (“old old”), and the complexity of this growing population shows nurses every day that seniors are unique in their healthcare needs and wants. Effective communication is critical in all nursing positions, but is even more important when caring for those who may have difficulty communicating their wishes and/or who may have trouble understanding options due to things as simple as having difficulty reading small print or having difficulty hearing. Just as all children and young adults are not the same, elderly patients are unique and have different needs and wants.
An important component of a gerontology nurse’s job is letting the patients control their own destinies, which may include working with families to ensure the wishes of the patients are upheld. Some seniors may enjoy the social interaction of medical appointments, while others may be begrudgingly dragged to appointments by family members. Some patients may want aggressive care while others may not, and a gerontology nurse needs to be able to facilitate communication between the patients, families, and doctors to create a healthcare plan that follows the patient’s wishes.
Importance of Preventive Care
Much emphasis is placed on preventive care across all nursing disciplines, but it is particularly important in the aging population, which can be more susceptible to illness and disease when overall health is compromised. It is important for gerontology nurses to discuss with patients and families how factors such as poor nutrition, inadequate exercise, and exposure to health risks like smoking and harmful consumption of alcohol can lead to chronic health issues and mobility problems.
The Effect of Chronic Conditions
Gerontology requires the understanding of a range of chronic conditions that more commonly impact the elderly, including hypertension, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, dementia, and cancer. Due to these chronic conditions, gerontology nurses must have a wide range of knowledge of the conditions themselves as well as their corresponding medications, possible drug interactions, and the differing drug metabolism rates of elderly patients. Physiology changes with age, and elderly patients can experience drug toxicity more quickly than younger patients due to polypharmacy, or more than four different drugs being taken simultaneously.
All these complexities among the aging population make the gerontology field challenging, but also immeasurably rewarding. And with opportunities in virtually every city and town, in a range of settings, you can pursue a career in the environment that is right for you.
Settings for Gerontology Nurses
Gerontology nurses can work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, rehabilitation centers, assisted living facilities, retirement homes, community health agencies, and in patients’ homes as a home health or hospice nurse. The range of employment options can allow for the schedule and environment that is best suited for you, as well as increased potential for movement within the profession.
Choosing to Specialize in Gerontology
If you already are an RN and are interested in working with the fastest growing population group in the U.S., there are a number of ways for you to specialize in gerontology, including becoming a geriatric nurse, geriatric nurse practitioner, or clinical nurse specialist. While most programs require you hold at least a 2-year degree and license, as well as some level of practical experience, there are many options for advancing your credentials, including a variety of campus-based and online RN-to-BSN programs that can provide you with flexible options to pursue your new career. If you are a nurse with a BSN, you can become a nurse practitioner and practice in this area as an adult-gerontology acute care or primary care NP or clinical nurse specialist. Many programs also have RN-to-MSN options as well.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts more than half a million nursing jobs will be added in the healthcare sector between 2012 and 2022, with a 19% increase in RN jobs during that decade. With the active influx of baby boomers entering the healthcare system each day, gerontology is sure to be one of the most needed specializations for years to come. If you have the dedication to serve America’s growing elderly population, this could be the best time to pursue this critically important specialization. While the challenges can be great, the rewards can be even greater.