Clinical placements are pivotal for nurses of all types, and gerontology nurses are no exception. They help to shape compassionate, skilled professionals who are ready to meet the growing and often complicated needs of older adults. Responding to an increasingly aging population is one of the issues that the healthcare industry needs to solve, and gerontology nurses will be one of the most important groups of professionals at the center of this.
This article explores the role of gerontology nurses and how clinical placement is integral to training healthcare professionals for the role.
Bridging theory and practice
Gerontology clinical placements are the main way that nursing students can connect the dots between theoretical knowledge and practical application. In the classroom, they learn about aging processes, diseases that affect older adults, and principles of ethical care. This provides a great foundation, but it’s during clinical placement that nurses truly understand how to apply these theories in real-life situations.
Gerontological theories like Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development or the disengagement theory offer frameworks for understanding the social and emotional needs of older adults. Students might have discussed these concepts at length in lectures, but it’s only when they witness a real patient navigate late adulthood that they begin to fully comprehend it.
Clinical mentors are a big part of this bridge too. They are another link between academia and practice, and these experienced nurses can guide newer ones through things that the classroom may not have prepared them for. This is true both in terms of providing guidance for when new nurses are putting theory into action, and when they need reflection and advice after patient interactions.
Skill development in clinical settings
Clinical settings are where the real hands-on skills are developed. During clinical rotations, gerontology students will practice what they have learned, as well as learn advanced nursing procedures that are tailored specifically to older adults. This commonly includes understanding how different chronic conditions affect this demographic and how to manage them. Wound care, medication management, and mobility assistance are just a few examples of the things students will learn to master.
What is learned in clinical settings goes well beyond mastering procedures, however. It’s also about honing clinical judgment and decision-making abilities. Each patient a nursing student encounters will present a unique set of variables. Their medical history, personal preferences, and social circumstances could all be wildly different from the last patient they saw and require a different approach.
While simulations that mimic common geriatric scenarios are useful, interacting with real patients takes things up a notch. Real-patient interactions aren’t controlled, meaning students might get thrown a curve ball or find themselves in a situation they weren’t anticipating. This is something nurses frequently experience throughout their careers, so it’s more important to learn how to deal with this when it happens than trying to preempt every possible situation they could face.
Another great way to develop skills in clinical settings is through feedback. Along with mentors, other health professionals that students encounter during clinical placements are all capable of providing constructive criticism.
Clinical settings are so important for developing skills that nursing schools put a lot of work into matching their students with the right placement. In fact, an increasing number of adult gerontology nurse practitioner online programs are making this a key feature of their courses. The online BSN-DNP AGACNP program at The University of Indianapolis is a very good example of this. Uindy has a dedicated placement team that coordinates on students’ behalf to find a placement, and the placement coordinator is always there to answer any questions that students may have.
Patient interaction and communication
One of the keys to providing great care in gerontology is communication. As students work through clinical placements, they will discover that how they engage with elderly patients can significantly influence their overall wellbeing. Good communication leads to greater trust and comfort, and this results in more accurate health assessments and tailored care plans.
When communicating with older adults, especially those with cognitive impairments like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, patience and understanding are the focus. Students will learn basic techniques like speaking slowly and clearly, all without infantilizing the patient. Nonverbal cues are equally important. Nurses must maintain eye contact and use gentle touch as much as possible to convey empathy when words fail. Simplifying complex medical terms into everyday language is another important idea.
A big part of communicating well with this demographic involves empathy that goes beyond simply sympathy for a patient’s condition. Emotional intelligence allows nurses to read between the lines of what an elderly patient might struggle to express verbally due to either fear or confusion about their condition or treatment. Developing this skill during clinical placements enables future nurses to provide compassionate care that recognizes each patient should be treated as an individual.
Conversations around end-of-life care present some of the most challenging scenarios for gerontology nurses. These discussions require sensitivity as they involve helping patients come to terms with their own mortality. These conversations must also respect their wishes for how they want to live out their remaining days. Dealing with these kinds of ethical dilemmas takes courage and an ethically grounded approach. Hands-on experience during a placement period can be important for developing this.
Facing real-world challenges
Gerontology nursing presents a unique set of challenges that students may not fully appreciate until they are immersed in a clinical placement. One common issue is managing chronic illnesses, which are prevalent among the elderly population. Nurses will learn to coordinate long-term care plans and adjust them based on how the patient’s health is responding. Students can expect to learn the intricacies of conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and dementia.
Dealing with family dynamics also becomes part of the daily routine. Gerontology nurses encounter families struggling with the demands of caregiving or making difficult decisions about their loved one’s care. Clinical placements provide an opportunity for students to practice mediating these situations. They will learn how to offer support and guidance while respecting everyone’s perspectives.
As well as personal interactions, societal and demographic changes may add another layer to gerontology nursing. With populations aging globally, there is an increasing demand for healthcare services tailored to the elderly. During clinical placement, students will witness firsthand how shifts in policy and resources can affect patient care delivery.
Geriatrics can have an unpredictable nature that always keeps nurses on their toes. Sudden declines in patient health, emergency interventions after falls, or acute medical events are just a couple of examples of crisis scenarios that regularly play out in geriatrics. Clinical placements expose nurses to these realities early on so that dealing with them becomes second nature by the time they enter the workforce full-time. Learning how to maintain composure is a big part of this. This aspect of healthcare education prepares nurses not just as clinicians but also as reliable team members when everybody needs to step up.
No matter what part of healthcare a nurse works in, they will be involved in multidisciplinary teams at some point. This includes nurses in geriatric care. Clinical placements in gerontology are important in this context, as they offer a unique window into how interconnected healthcare professionals work together to serve older adults. In these settings, students learn that delivering comprehensive care goes far beyond what any one person can do. It is about diverse expertise and perspectives coming together and leveraging one another.
The geriatric care team typically includes physicians specializing in aging, gerontology nurses, social workers, physical and occupational therapists, pharmacists, dietitians, and sometimes even psychologists or psychiatrists. Each professional brings a distinct skillset to address the needs of elderly patients. They cover everything from managing chronic diseases to supporting mental health to mobility and getting around each day.
During clinical placements in gerontology environments, students are not just observing but actively participating in this collaborative process. They will learn how to communicate effectively with different professionals, each with their own language rooted in their disciplines. They will also begin to understand how various roles work in different ways to achieve the same goal.
For example, when working alongside occupational therapists, students will notice that they focus on adapting environments for better functionality for patients with limited mobility or cognitive decline. This provides insights into non-medical interventions that significantly improve quality of life. For students, this knowledge will help them in their nursing practice by integrating a more holistic view of patient wellness that looks at the full picture of the patient’s life.
Professional networking and career opportunities
It’s a great idea for all nurses to actively grow their professional networks. The industry is so big, and new areas of practice are constantly being developed, which means having a big network can be really useful. For new nurses, it can be hard to know where to begin building this network, but clinical placements can be a first step. As they enter these settings, students will encounter seasoned practitioners, educators, and fellow students. Each of these three types of connections could become valuable in the future.
Networking during clinical placements can significantly influence career opportunities and growth within the field of gerontology. By cultivating relationships with experienced nurses and other healthcare professionals, students open doors to knowledge exchange and mentorship opportunities. They can also gain insights into different career paths that may have seemed out-of-reach or unknown. These interactions can often lead to job referrals or recommendations too.
As well as individual people within healthcare, students may join professional organizations to help grow their network. Groups like the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) and the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) are both good examples in the gerontology space. Gerontology nurses may find that the people they meet on placements are already members of these groups, and this can be a good way to make a connection. They can also offer advice on how to get the best out of membership.
Self-assessment and fit for the role
Given the wide scope of nursing, deciding which specialty to pursue is a big decision, and self-assessment plays a key role in making this decision. It allows nursing students to reflect on their strengths, weaknesses, interests, and values to decide which area of nursing makes the most sense for their interests and skillset.
Clinical placement settings offer a real-world context for making this assessment. As they engage directly with older adults, students should observe how they react emotionally and intellectually. Do they feel drawn to these patients? Can they empathize with their experiences while maintaining professional composure? Their responses can help inform whether this specialty aligns well with their natural inclinations.
This is important because gerontology nursing requires specific psychological and emotional attributes. They need patience, compassion, and resilience, both amidst loss and during the decline of patients’ health. It’s often about offering comfort just as much as it is about providing clinical care. During clinical rotations on a placement, these qualities should come naturally to students when interacting with aging patients if they are a good fit. If they energize rather than drain students, they may have found their calling within nursing.
It’s a good idea for students to think of clinical placements as trial periods where natural inclinations become apparent through daily tasks. Students can then take note of them without judgment, as part of an honest self-evaluation.
The importance of clinical placements for nursing students
Clinical placements are non-negotiable in molding adept nurses. In gerontology placements, student nurses will be equipped with the skills and confidence needed to provide exceptional care for the elderly. As the US population ages, these immersive learning opportunities will become increasingly more important in shaping a workforce that is up to the challenge. They will prepare compassionate caregivers with a strong sense of empathy, who will continually advance the standards of gerontology nursing as the future edges nearer.