Guidance for Geriatric Nurses: What Working with the Elderly Entails


Caring for the elderly should be seen as an honor, but is nonetheless a serious, often taxing, yet deeply rewarding responsibility. Geriatric nurses live on the front lines of healthcare for the elderly, providing essential medical care but also offering vital patience, compassion, and support as their patients deal with the harsh realities of aging. If you’re considering a career in this field, you may want to look into gerontology nurse practitioner programs online, but more importantly, you need to reflect and consider if you have what it takes to pursue this challenging yet vital and extremely satisfying career.

Roles and Responsibilities

Your duties as a geriatric nurse may vary depending on where you work – working in a hospital can be very different from working in a convalescent home – but some responsibilities are universal. No matter where you wind up, you will doubtless be performing thorough physical examinations, evaluating vital signs, assessing mental status, and identifying potential health concerns of your patients. You will be treating, managing, and educating your patients about chronic diseases frequently experienced by the elderly, including diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, dementia, cancer, and many others. 

These kinds of conditions are challenging to work under, and they can also affect patients’ mental health – coping with the stress of aging while also battling a severe or chronic illness is emotionally taxing. You should be prepared to deal with these challenges as you come to face them.

Your other responsibilities will include assisting patients with personal hygiene, dressing, wound care, eating, and other daily activities as needed. You will need to be prepared to spot and implement preventative strategies for pressure ulcers and other skin issues common to people who are chronically sedentary.

Geriatric nurses normally work with interdisciplinary teams including physicians, social workers, therapists, and dietitians to develop and implement individualized care plans for their patients.  You may also be faced with the additional duty of helping advocate for the rights of your patients and their family members as they face challenging situations. 

It is important to always retain a certain level of objectivity to ensure that your decisions are guided by optimal medical outcomes for your patients. But it’s also important to consider and advocate for their long-term quality of life and to ensure that the medical institution you work for and your coworkers are genuinely considering the patient’s best interests and ensuring that all parties are operating lawfully and ethically.

This is truly an enormous responsibility: you will be responsible for the lives and well-being of your patients, and you should be aware of the depth and breadth of care required in such a role.

Work Environments

Geriatric nurses work in a wide variety of settings – anywhere the elderly can be found, there are opportunities for work for a geriatric nurse. Most work in assisted living facilities, hospice centers, or convalescent homes that offer long-term care for the elderly, where they will work with a team of other nurses and doctors to look after a group of patients to ensure their needs are met on a daily basis. These nurses will come to specialize in caring for patients with chronic conditions including dementia, cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, muscular atrophy, and others. Hospice workers will specialize in caring for patients who are close to death.

Those who work in hospitals often work in specialized units focused on elderly care. These nurses usually deal with more exigent circumstances, including surgeries, emergency care, and patients who are otherwise healthy and are dealing with conditions that have higher imminent fatal potential, including acute heart conditions, late-stage cancer, and other advanced chronic conditions.

Home-based care is becoming an increasingly common mode of work for geriatric nurses. Some elderly patients who can afford a more customized care plan opt for in-home care as an alternative to assisted living facilities. Nurses engaged in home-based care normally specialize in assisting their patients with their daily needs, ensuring appropriate daily procedures and medications are administered consistently, and monitoring their vital signs and aging process. 

Patients receiving in-home care are normally less advanced in the aging process than those in hospitals or assisted living facilities, although this may not be true of those who are willing and able to renovate their homes to accommodate the unique needs resulting from advanced age. Nonetheless, patients requiring frequent medical attention will likely wind up in a setting with doctors on-site, so those opting for home care are less likely to have severe conditions or extensive needs. 

The exception to his rule is home hospice care. When patients are nearing the end of their lives, some opt to be cared for from home. Hospice nurses specialize in ensuring that patients approaching death remain comfortable and can approach death with dignity. Hospice patients are all suffering from either very advanced symptoms of natural aging, or are in the late stages of a terminal illness. Hospice nurses focus less on observing and documenting the aging process of the patient, and more on preventing unnecessary early death and ensuring that the remaining days of their patients are comfortable and dignified.

Challenges and Rewards

Working with the elderly can be very difficult, but it is ultimately immensely rewarding. While older people can at times be difficult to deal with, or even downright uncooperative, they come with their fair share of perks. The elderly are often extremely grateful for those who care for them when they are receiving good treatment. Many have fascinating life stories and unusual experiences to share with those around them. Learning from the experience of people who have lived long, full lives can be very interesting, and you can learn quite a bit from your patients if you take the time.

Aside from gaining knowledge, it can be incredibly fulfilling to go home every day knowing you’ve made a difference in someone’s life. The elderly are often unable to care for themselves, and you are likely to save a life more than once in your career. 

How to Succeed


While all geriatric nurses require exceptional medical skills, there are certain qualities that make someone genuinely well-suited to nursing, and these traits are perhaps even more important for dealing with the elderly. Patience is a virtue when working with the elderly: they often move, think, and talk slowly. Their thoughts can be disorganized, and their emotions are often unpredictable. The ability to show empathy and compassion for elderly patients is crucial to gaining trust and building the rapport necessary to ensure their cooperation. Effective communication and a positive attitude go a long way.

Nursing is not for everyone, and that goes doubly for anyone wanting to work with the elderly. Few possess the patience and kindness required to care for people who live with the end in sight. But for those that do, few careers are as rewarding and enlightening as geriatric nursing.


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