Working with seniors tough but rewarding career

As more and more baby boomers are taking care of their elderly parents, the increase in demand for geriatric nurses continues to rise — and their appreciation of these caregivers no doubt continues to increase with it.

According to the Nurse Competence in Aging initiative sponsored by the American Nurses Association, elderly patients — those that are 65 and older — make up 90 percent of nursing home residents, 80 percent of home care patients, and 48 percent of hospital patients. Couple those statistics with an expected increase of 8,000 nurses by 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and you’ve got yourself a promising and gratifying career.

Because of the age of the patients, sympathy and a delicate touch are required to be successful in this position. Taking care of seniors has been related to taking care of an infant. In many cases, elderly patients suffer from incontinence or an inability to feed themselves. This is where geriatric nurses come in.

“Working with seniors can be very rewarding,” says Peggi Semmens, senior health resource center nurse of Wyndemere Senior Living Campus in Wheaton, Ill. “Remember one thing, they are just like you — they like to visit with friends, go to the movies, meet for lunch, they’re just older. Be patient, encourage them to stay active and be a good listener. They are very special and have lived long and colorful lives.”

Often, the biggest challenges these nurses face are physical ones. Everyday functions, such as getting up to go to the bathroom or even going for a walk, can be extremely difficult for some patients. That’s why geriatric nurses must be able to effectively handle falls or injuries.

“Many seniors have problems with vision, hearing, balance or cognitive skills,” says Semmens. “I have to be patient, speak clearly and slowly, and I often write down the instructions I have for them.”

Anne Carbone, a registered nurse at Chelsea Retirement Community in Chelsea, Mich., says nurses who work in geriatrics are required to be able to lift up to 75 pounds. However, if a 220-pound patient falls, assistance may be required.

“The patience and love required for the job is enormous,” she says. “It takes my best attitude not to feel guilty because I am on my feet all day long, I do not put out the sheer physical and emotional effort (nurses aides) do. I’ve gotten hit, scratched and spit on, for sure, but I can walk away, and many times do, to attend some other situation.”

The emotional aspects of elder care can be taxing as well, however, Carbone keeps in mind that it’s just a part of a life.

“Our goal is to maintain quality of life, so tolerance is required for disabilities and imperfect health, choices by family not to aggressively treat their relative’s cancer, or whatever,” adds Carbone. “Also, we must understand that death is a part of life, and occurs when it’s time even if we are not ready. We want to support the resident and the family in having a good death experience — pain-free and peaceful for the resident, and peaceful and guilt-free for the family.”

Despite the potential to be both emotionally and physically challenging, the rewards of working with seniors far outweigh the drawbacks, say experts. The care you provide to those as they get older is easily reciprocated.

“Seniors have such history to share,” adds Semmens. “I have worked in all areas of nursing, including the emergency room, orthopedics and pediatrics. I returned to working with seniors many years ago and find this to be my favorite job ever. I love to help the seniors stay active and as healthy as they can and enjoy their lives.”

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