As a student in nursing school, you’ll need to start thinking about your future specialty area. While some new nurses are starry-eyed about intensive care, the ER, and other “sexy,” high-adrenaline areas of practice, an up-and-coming 21st-century nursing specialty is geriatric nursing.
An Aging America
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Aging reports that, in 2009, there were approximately 39 million Americans who were at least 65 years old, but that figure will rise to 70 million by the year 2030. This is a tremendous leap in the number of older Americans who will need nursing services and other health care, a precipitous rise that will yield significant growth in the field of geriatric nursing.
Aging baby boomers are a relatively educated bunch, and they're savvy about getting their health care needs met. Moreover, according to a 2010 report by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), the Hartford Institute of Geriatric Nursing, and New York University College of Nursing, baby boomers visit doctors’ offices about 248 million times per year — an average twice that of adults under the age of 65.
Despite the large (and growing) demand for geriatric health care professionals, AACN makes clear that there is a significant current shortage of nurses trained in geriatrics and gerontology. Nurses who are interested in providing health care services to older adults will be well-positioned to leverage their skills in pursuit of advanced career opportunities.
The Field of Geriatric Nursing
During nursing school, you’ll often hear that you need to get one or two years of Med-Surg experience in order to be viable in the job market. While this is still gospel according to many nurses and nursing professors, the reality on the ground is that there simply aren’t enough Med-Surg and high-acuity hospital jobs — that is, jobs involving medical interventions for extremely ill patients — to employ all the current and graduating nurses who are seeking these positions. Today’s nursing students would fare better if they considered providing care to older adults in the range of settings where these patients are served, from long-term care facilities to physician offices to home care.
Nurses who provide care to older adults may be trained at the undergraduate or graduate level. While not all nursing programs offer courses in geriatrics, it is increasingly common to find these offerings in bachelor’s programs. Further, there are additional certifications in such areas as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease that will increase your qualifications in the fields of geriatrics and gerontology.
While you’re still pursuing your bachelor’s degree in nursing, take geriatrics courses, and talk to the nurses you meet who work with older adults to learn about the field. They will be able to provide advice about courses, educational pathways, and career opportunities. Build a network of geriatric nurse specialists, and enlist one or two as unofficial mentors.
If you’re considering graduate school, explore nursing programs that offer degree paths to becoming a nurse practitioner (NP), clinical nurse specialist (CNS), or doctor of nursing practice (DNP) with a specialty in geriatrics. Each of these options will enable you to work in a range of capacities, from providing office-based primary care to offering house calls for homebound patients to acting in a leadership role on a health care team in an institutional setting.
If you want to position yourself for a career in geriatric nursing, getting experience in long-term care, assisted living, or sub-acute rehabilitation facilities is a good place to start. While these jobs may not pay as well as the high-acuity units in some urban medical centers, this pathway offers many growth and leadership opportunities. To become eligible for advancement in the field, you’ll want to seek additional certifications in geriatric nursing so you’ll be able to move into charge nurse positions, supervisory roles, and even management openings.
Geriatric nurses carry out a range of responsibilities, which may include:
- Managing the acute and chronic physical or mental conditions of older adults
- Assessing the living environment and community resources for older adult patients
- Prescribing and delivering medication for older adults
- Facilitating ethical health care decision-making for older adults and their families or caregivers
- Providing palliative and hospice care to older adults
A Career Path for the Future
Planning a nursing career entails being strategic. The country’s aging population is not a demographic flash in the pan, and geriatric nursing will continue to be a growth area well into the coming decades — whether you pursue an education as a practical nurse, registered nurse, or nurse practitioner. Jobs and advancement opportunities will continue to expand, a trend that will allow today’s geriatrics nurses to develop their careers in a rewarding and much-needed health care profession.