Specialty Spotlight

Specialty Spotlight: Gerontological Nursing Offers New Challenges

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Appreciative patients, interesting stories, the insight of age and a sense of accomplishment are all part of the benefits of being a gerontological nurse, according to Judith Hertz, Ph.D., RN, president of the National Gerontological Nursing Association (NGNA).

Hertz, who is also an associate professor and director of nursing graduate studies at the School of Nursing and Health Studies at Northern Illinois University, in DeKalb, shares valuable advice with students and new grads on pursuing a career caring for older adults.

What do you enjoy most about being a gerontological nurse? What is most unique about the specialty?  

What drew me to gerontological nursing was the joy of providing nursing care to persons who usually are so appreciative for any time that is devoted to them. I also love learning about the stories each older adult has to tell and the wisdom each person has to share. At the end of the day, it is possible to feel that something has been accomplished or learned.

I think one of the very unique things about gerontological nursing is that older adults are very diverse. Age is really irrelevant in terms of how “healthy” people are. Each person is unique. This is because of genetic and physiological differences but also because of the life experiences each person has encountered along with their personal values and goals. In some ways, this makes providing nursing care to older adults more challenging. For me, that is the “fun” part of this specialty!

What can a new gerontological nurse expect in the first few months or the first year on the job?  

Any nurse who launches a career in a new field or assumes a new role can expect to feel a bit “uncomfortable” in the new situation. This is true for novice and experienced nurses. This is part of becoming an expert nurse; it is necessary to start somewhere.

In the first few months or first year of practicing as a gerontological nurse, the nurse might need to purposefully seek out information and plan quality care that meets the needs of older adults. It may be necessary to do some outside reading or to seek out experts for guidance. In other words, it’s necessary to build a solid foundation and knowledge base.

What is the most challenging part of the role of a gerontological nurse? What are the keys to overcoming those challenges?  

I think the most challenging aspect of gerontological nursing is that older adults are quite diverse. This makes care more complex. And yet, research with different groups of older adults has identified some common patterns, so there is evidence to support various strategies for providing nursing care.

The first key to overcoming the challenge of providing appropriate care to diverse individuals is to listen to what that person is telling you. What are the older adult’s concerns, priorities, values and goals? Then, those are the first health issues upon which to focus. This can be done with individuals, families or groups.

Second, seek out and read information from published research or from a knowledgeable mentor or preceptor. Attendance at conferences and other types of continuing education programs is another way to gain information. A strong knowledge base is essential to meeting the challenge of caring for older adults.

Third, I’d recommend finding methods to communicate with policymakers and administrators, so that the environment in which the nurse practices is supportive of providing quality nursing care. Sometimes when this is done as a group with common interests, it is more effective and less threatening than if done by an individual nurse. In other words, seek out other nurses and health care providers who are interested in promoting quality nursing care to older adults.

What is one critical piece of advice you would offer a nursing student or new graduate interested in pursuing a career as a gerontological nurse?  

The first most critical piece of advice is to declare your intent to pursue a career in gerontological nursing. Stand up and state, “I want to be a gerontological nurse!” Then, nursing students or new graduates should identify a faculty member or practicing nurse who is an expert in this field. As a faculty member, this is one of the great pleasures and reasons I teach. Absolutely, the best part of being an educator is observing students grow and develop and surpass the teacher’s contributions and expectations.

What are the important steps to take to prepare for the gerontological nursing career path?  

In preparing for a gerontological nursing career, it’s important to meet and seek out guidance from people with expertise in gerontological nursing. This can be done one to one in nursing school or practice settings. It can also be done by joining a professional organization devoted to improving quality nursing care for older adults—in the U.S., this would be NGNA—then purposefully building a knowledge base and seeking a professional position where older adults are a large segment of the clientele.

Finally, it is important to become nationally certified in gerontological nursing. Certification provides concrete evidence of expertise. This might also require further formal education in the specialty to earn credentials (certificate of study, advanced degree) that represent your expertise. Lifelong learning is important as one pursues a gerontological nursing career path.

For more information, visit the Web site of the National Gerontological Nursing Association.