Senior Care is Having a Moment

Nursing students with a passion for treating their elders are in demand

September 9, 2013

Cathleen Scully’s passion for working with older adults was inspired by watching her mother care for elderly relatives.

A surge of seniors will soon change U.S. population dynamics. About 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65 every day until about 2030, when seniors are predicted to number about 72 million — about 20 percent of the U.S. population, according to a 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And they’ll all need health care. Nursing schools across the country have heeded the call and are training nurses in geriatrics. That means students learn about chronic conditions such as arthritis, dementia, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and hypertension.

One of those nurses will be Cathleen Scully, 43, of Fairfax, who’s earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree in the adult-gerontology nurse practitioner track at George Mason University.

“I’ve always worked with older adults,” Scully says. She grew up watching her mother take care of her grandmother, as well as other aging relatives, and in her 20s, Scully volunteered in a nursing home.

Now she’s learning how to give elderly patients the best care possible in assisted-living residences, retirement communities, long-term care facilities or in primary care.

Compassion and desire to help lures most of these nurses into the field in the first place.

“I feel like I can do the most good [in geriatrics],” says Shannon Tieman, 30, of Arlington, who’s working toward an adult-gerontology nurse practitioner master’s degree at Catholic University.

Growing Old, at Home

The demand is especially high for nurses who can work with elderly people in their own homes.

“We’ve moved away from the delivery-of-care-at-home model, but we kind of need to move back to that,” says Linda Briggs, an assistant professor at George Washington University School of Nursing.

Seniors often prefer to stay in their hometowns, where health-care professionals, especially ones with geriatric-specific knowledge, are not always available, says Paula Townsley, 49, of Chambersburg, Pa., who graduated with an adult-gerontology nurse practitioner master’s degree from GWU in May.

Townsley earned her degree online. It allowed her to stay in Chambersburg, a town with a large elderly population, where she works at a long-term care facility.

GWU’s online students live all over the country and even abroad. Students complete their clinical practice in their own communities, which boosts the chance that they’ll stay to care for people in those communities after graduation.

“People think if you’re old, you’re sick and you can’t do anything,” Townsley says. But plenty of 75-year-olds remain independent and in reasonably good health.

“Everybody is different, and everybody, no matter where you are in the life span, should be treated as an individual,” Townsley says.

A Different World

Seniors and the elderly have a unique set of medical problems.

“It’s almost like a different kind medicine, working with older adults, because there’s a lot [of geriatric-specific knowledge] that’s not incorporated in the ‘adult’ program,” says Brandon Jones, 32, of Durham, N.C., who’s in the U.S. Public Health Service. He recently earned his adult-gerontology nurse practitioner master’s degree online from GWU while working at the medical center in a federal prison in North Carolina.

Older adults tend to have chronic conditions — and often more than one. And medication can be an especially tricky issue when treating seniors. “If their kidney function isn’t good, a normal dose of a medication can potentially be dangerous,” Briggs says.

Dementia is a major concern as well, especially because it can be tricky to recognize what’s normal forgetfulness and what’s indicative of a problem.

“Caregivers and nurses’ aids really do need that training in dementia,” says Margaret Rodan, assistant dean for the School of Nursing at GMU, where a new grant focuses on three big topics for older adults: dementia, delirium and depression.

At Catholic University, one new course deals with cognitive decline and dementia. In one lesson, students got to peer inside the world of aging: They wore goggles (to impair vision), a headset connected to an iPod Nano with a squeaking nose (to impair hearing), thick gloves on their hands (to simulate nerve damage) and spiked shoe inserts (more nerve damage simulation) as they attempted to complete tasks such as folding laundry.

“They were very confused — it was 20 minutes of ‘I don’t understand what you said,’ ” says Janet Selway, who directs the new adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner program at Catholic University. “They were amazed at how agitated they got.”

People With a Past

Nurses who care for elders get to nurture the generations that nurtured them — both baby boomers and the generation before. “They’ve lived through some very challenging times — the Great Depression, wars,” Townsley says. “They have come through with flying colors and have learned to adapt, and I love hearing their stories.”

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Rick Snider · September 8, 2013