By Jackie Powder
America is on the cusp of an aging boom. By the year 2030, it’s expected that one out of every five people will be over the age of 65. Some 70 million seniors will require a continuum of health care services—from management of chronic conditions to long-term care placements.
But a shortage of health care providers trained to meet the multiple needs of the older adult population raises questions about the ability to care for this rapidly growing population.
The Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing seeks to address the coming demographic shifts with a new required course for undergraduates. Issues in Aging, introduced this past fall semester, focuses on the aging process and promoting healthy aging. The course also raises students’ awareness of the future health care needs of older adults—as well as the implications for their careers.
“This has not been an area that has been included in nursing curricula in many schools of nursing in the past,” says assistant professor Elizabeth “Ibby” Tanner, PhD, RN, who is teaching the new course and helped to develop it with other faculty last year. “We see it as our responsibility to not only teach nurses about how to care for an aging population, but to interest them in this growing field.”
And as the baby boom generation hits 60, the traditional concept of aging is likely to undergo some revision.
“In general, this population values health and wants to stay
healthy,” says Tanner. “That’s why we really have to teach the continuum of care—how to keep people healthy and functioning, as well as how to care for them in a variety of health care settings.”
In addition to the new course, topics related to geriatrics have been more broadly integrated throughout the undergraduate curriculum.
The Nursing for Adult Physical Health course, for example, includes more emphasis on specific skills required in caring for an older patient, and the Foundations of Nursing Practice class includes content on mobility issues and pain assessment in older adults.
Currently, only 34 percent of baccalaureate nursing programs require a stand-alone geriatrics course; only 22 percent offer an elective in the subject. And less than one percent of the country’s 2.2 million practicing RNs are certified in geriatrics.
A contributing factor to the shortage has been reluctance on the part of nursing students to select the geriatrics field. Many choose to work with infants and children or enter the critical care sector, and don’t view working with older adults as “exciting and challenging,” Tanner says.
Tanner hopes to erase some of the misperceptions about gerontology by framing the aging process for students in a more positive light, and by presenting new models of care to help older adults remain vital and productive. “We’re trying to focus on successful aging, rather than the deficiencies of aging,” Tanner explains, “and what we as nurses can do proactively to promote health and quality of life for older adults.”