Tips for Nurses Who Work With the Elderly

According to the Administration on Aging, there were 49.2 million people 65 years or older living in the United States as of 2016 — one in every seven Americans. By 2060, estimates predict that there will be 98 million senior citizens. With the growth in this segment of the population, the need for nurses to care for elderly patients will increase.

The Role of Geriatric Nurses

Geriatrics is a field of medicine that concentrates on the health problems and diseases of elderly patients. Aging patients tend to have more than one chronic condition. These nurses need to be able to provide care to patients who have compromised immune systems and deteriorating bodily functions. Typically, geriatric nurses are RNs with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). 

Geriatric nurses work in hospitals, clinics, nursing homes or retirement communities. They also provide care in patients' homes. As a geriatric nurse, you may offer patients preventive care as well as help them with conditions such as heart disease, cancer, arthritis, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis and Alzheimer's. Your patients may be bedridden or mentally impaired. They may suffer from debilitating pain.

Some of your responsibilities as a geriatric nurse include:

  • Recording vital signs
  • Administering medication
  • Assisting with daily hygiene
  • Developing exercise programs
  • Transporting patients to healthcare appointments

Tips for Working With the Elderly

Some patients can be difficult or unresponsive due to cognitive, hearing or vision problems. Nurses need to find ways to overcome these obstacles.

For instance, nurses who encounter patients with cognitive challenges should speak clearly and slowly and repeat essential information. Nurses can also supply brochures to help remind the patients of items discussed.

To overcome hearing challenges, nurses should limit background noise, speak loudly without yelling, and face the patient while talking. Nurses can address a patient's visual challenges by making easy-to-read handouts or providing patients with information in an audio format. Reading materials should be in black text on a white background. Ideal font size is 18 point with ample spacing between lines of text. In addition, these reading materials should be printed on plain paper to avoid the glare on paper with a glossy finish.

Patients With Age-Related Problems

Here are some examples of the age-related problems nurses deal with when working with the elderly:

  • Depression
  • Medication side effects
  • Medical misunderstandings
  • End-of-life issues
  • Loss of dignity

Elderly patients can become depressed when their declining health necessitates moving into nursing facilities. They may have feelings of uselessness and show a lack of motivation. If older adults live at home by themselves, they may feel isolated because of a lack of social support and interaction.

When aging patients develop depression, it may affect their health. Signs of depression include constant fatigue, weight loss, poor personal hygiene, and changes in sleeping patterns and appetite. Nurses can prevent depression in elderly patients by instituting routine walks, creating an eating schedule and promoting a healthy diet. They can suggest that patients engage in hobbies such as knitting or painting and encourage visits with family, friends and neighbors. The patient may also need to see a mental health professional for counseling or medication.

Many times, elderly patients are on multiple medications. When nurses meet new patients, it is imperative that they find out what types of medications their patients are taking. Nurses need to be aware of the patient's medications so there is not an adverse reaction or side effect to a new prescription.

A written contract is necessary if you are an in-home healthcare nurse. This is a precaution to protect you from any misunderstanding about the level of care you are providing, compensation and service schedule. You should meet with the family to discuss the patient's care and gather medical information.

Geriatric nurses should discuss end-of-life issues with the patient and family members. The topic is difficult, but nurses need to address medical scenarios and the patient's preferences in those cases to continue life-sustaining measures such as nutrition, hydration, pain management and resuscitation.

A nurse must safeguard a patient's dignity by always showing respect. Patients are sometimes afraid and confused. They may be demanding because they are in extreme pain. Nurses should compassionately explain the condition, treatment and possible outcomes. Furthermore, patients deserve the utmost discretion and kindness in matters pertaining to their hygiene and other personal needs.

To care for elderly patients, you have to be willing to deal with age-related health concerns. Working with older patients can be rewarding. Many of them are cheerful and grateful for the care their nurses provide. However, when nursing the elderly, you must be prepared to encounter frustrated and angry patients, too. The reality is that many of your patients are in the last stages of their lives, so you need the desire to help patients with end-of-life decisions while managing their immediate healthcare needs.

Learn more about the URI online Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing program. 


U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Administration on Aging: 2017 Profile of Older Americans

Johnson & Johnson: Geriatric Nurse Tips for Nurses Working With Elderly Patients

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Older Adults

Healthcare Training Resource: Tips for Nurses Who Care for the Elderly How to Become a Geriatric Nurse

Everyday Health: The 15 Most Common Health Concerns for Seniors

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