The Impact of the Aging Population on Nursing

The proportion of elderly people in the U.S. population is growing, and fast. According to the Administration on Aging, people age 65 and older are expected to make up nearly 22 percent of the population by 2040, compared to 14.5 percent in 2014.1 This demographic shift has serious implications for many aspects of our society, but especially for the health care industry — and for nurses in particular.

Older adults have specific health needs that nurses will need to anticipate and adjust to accommodate to ensure optimal patient outcomes. Some of those include:

  • Multiple chronic conditions. As the human lifespan increases, so does the prevalence of chronic illnesses: 68 percent of older adults have at least two chronic diseases.2 It is estimated that by 2040, almost 160 million people in the US, most of them elderly, will be living with chronic conditions.3 Managing multiple chronic conditions successfully involves an awareness of potential behavior changes, medication interaction and potential side effects, and strategies for relieving pain and other symptoms.
  • A need for home-based care. Elderly and ill patients will require more in-home care because they may no longer be able to handle tasks related to patient compliance. For instance, they may need help with simple physical therapy exercises, organizing pills, diet and meal planning and preparation, administering their own injections, doing blood-pressure tests, and other requirements of their care plan. Their family members or other caregivers may also need to be educated on how to help elderly patients fulfill these responsibilities.

These realities point to specific areas in which nursing is transforming in order to continue to successfully deliver health care that meets the specific needs of elderly patients.

Teamwork and Coordination

Nurses are already considered a vital part of a health care team and regularly collaborate with their peers and other health care professionals. As nurses are usually the main point of contact for patients, they are well suited to handle the coordination and communication of integrated strategies for the extremely complex nature of senior patient care. When dealing with the multilayered challenges posed by senior patients, these skills will be especially valuable.

Education

The Institutes of Medicine’s “The Future of Nursing” report outlines the importance of achieving higher levels of nursing education to keep up with the changes and challenges of health care. Similarly, the demographic shift toward a greater population of seniors indicates a need for more nurses to be educated in gerontological issues. The Geriatric Nursing Education Consortium advocates for enhanced instruction and coursework in geriatrics in Bachelor of Science in Nursing programs.4 Nurses who have additional education in this area of health care will be better able to anticipate, prepare for, and meet the needs of the influx of geriatric patients.

Leadership

Nursing education at the bachelor’s level and up emphasizes leadership, communication, and critical thinking skills. While these abilities are necessary in all settings, they are particularly important when working with geriatric patients. Nurses will potentially serve as the primary care provider for senior patients with multiple chronic issues that do not require substantial physician intervention, requiring nurses to take on a larger role in patient care planning and treatment. In addition, effective communication skills will be required as family members step in to help out with care for senior patients. Nurses will need to be able to clearly explain treatment plans, answer questions, and address the concerns of both patients and their caregivers.

Recognizing and Acting on Career Opportunities

One way that nurses can prepare for this demographic shift is to proactively consider potential areas for professional development and opportunity. They may consider specializing in geriatrics or related fields to fill the need for expertise and nurse leadership in these areas. They may also focus on designing clinical and administrative home care plans for elderly patients as part of a health care organization’s overall strategy for effective patient care delivery. Or they can focus on educating future generations of nurses in the treatment of senior patients.

These sweeping demographic changes will likely require legislative action and policy development across many areas of American life. Health care is likely to act as the “canary in the coal mine,” forced to deal with the realities and needs of an aging population before other industries do.

Make sure you are prepared to handle the demands an aging population will make on the nursing profession. To learn about the online RN-BSN and online MSN programs at the University of Saint Mary, call 877.307.4915 to speak with an Admissions Advisor or request more information.

1Administration on Aging, www.aoa.acl.gov/Aging_Statistics/index.aspx

2National Council of Aging, Chronic Disease Management, www.ncoa.org/healthy-aging/chronic-disease/

3"Issues Affecting the Health of Older Citizens: Meeting the Challenge," The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing, available at www.nursingworld.com

 4GNEC Project, American Association of Colleges of Nursing, www.aacn.nche.edu/geriatric-nursing/gnec