Geriatric Nursing: Definition and Career Path (With Salary)

Updated November 28, 2022

A health care professional discusses medication with an older patient who holds a prescription bottle. The professional wears light green scrubs with a white undershirt.

A geriatric nurse cares for patients who are aging or suffering from conditions normally affecting aging patients. As researchers make discoveries that allow doctors to prolong the average lifespan, the population of geriatric patients continues to grow, increasing the demand for these nurses. If you're considering entering the geriatric nursing field, learning what these health care employees do and how much they make can help you decide if this career path matches your skills and goals.

In this article, we define geriatric nursing, describe what individuals in this field do, explain how to become one, list some key skills for geriatric nurses and share salary information for this field.

What is geriatric nursing?

Geriatric nursing is a field of nursing concerned with improving and maintaining the health of older adult patients. Nurses in this field undergo specialized education that teaches them how to care for older adult patients and understand their specific health needs.

They are also called gerontological nurses. Geriatric nurses provide patient-focused care to a vulnerable population with the ability to improve their patients' quality of life. They understand that conditions regarded as minor in a younger adult can quickly become serious or even life-threatening for an older adult.

Related: What Is Gerontology? (Duties, Environment, Salary and Tips)

What does a geriatric nurse do?

The responsibilities of geriatric nurses might fall into three categories:

Patient care

As older adult patients might have difficulty caring for themselves, geriatric nursing employees often help them with hygiene and eating. Here are some responsibilities they might undertake in this function:

  • Assisting patients with basic needs including bathing, dressing and eating

  • Encouraging patients to do as much as possible for themselves to help them feel independent

  • Organizing and administering medications according to the care plan

  • Helping patients to exercise and administering therapies such as limb massages

  • Planning, creating and managing patient health and care plans

Related: What Is Patient-Centered Care? Definition and Benefits

Health assessment

Geriatric nursing employees work with gerontologists, general physicians and other members of a patient's health team to identify health issues and develop treatment plans for age-related ailments. Here are some tasks they complete in this role:

  • Assisting physicians with physical exams and procedures to assess a patient's mental health and cognitive abilities

  • Recognizing the range of geriatric health problems such as mental declines, incontinence, falls and changes to sleep patterns

  • Assessing patients' ability to perform daily routine tasks and self-care

  • Monitoring patients daily to ensure that care plans remain appropriate to patient needs

  • Recording all relevant information and vital signs accurately and completely in the patient notes and database

Patient advocacy

Since patients may have diminishing mental capacities and cannot always make independent decisions about their health and treatment, the geriatric nurse may act as a patient advocate and involve the patient's family in decisions with other members of the health care team. Here are some of their responsibilities in this function:

  • Acting as a patient advocate and coordinating patient care that involves other health care team members, such as physical therapy

  • Educating family members about a patient's condition, best practices, disease prevention and how to promote self-care

  • Providing high-level end-of-life care and discussing a patient's needs and wishes with families and loved ones

Related: Inpatient vs. Outpatient Nursing: What's the Difference?

What conditions do these nurses treat?

Geriatric nurses focus on age-related diseases and health concerns, including:

  • Alzheimer's disease/dementia

  • Arthritis

  • Cancer

  • Chronic pain

  • Depression and isolation

  • Falls

  • Impaired mobility

  • Incontinence

  • Lack of mobility

  • Medication tolerance

  • Nutritional deficiency

  • Osteoporosis

  • Stroke

Related: How To Become a Nurse

How to become a geriatric nurse in 4 steps

Here are steps to help nurses interested in geriatric care succeed in their careers:

1. Earn a college degree in nursing

Graduation from an accredited nursing program is the first step. Some positions are open to those with an associate degree in nursing (ADN), an associate of science in nursing (ASN) or associate of applied science in nursing (AASN) but most require a bachelor's of science degree in nursing (BSN).

Coursework in a BSN degree program includes family health, physiology, leadership, ethics, research, community health and pharmaceuticals. Typically, BSN programs take four years of study and often include general education coursework.

Some colleges and universities offer an accelerated bachelor of science of nursing program that you can complete in 11 to 18 months. These programs are usually for candidates who already have a bachelor's degree, generally in a natural science. Each program has its own requirements for candidates, but many of them require a 3.0 GPA in core courses and a certain number of transferrable credits.

Related: What Can You Do With a Nursing Degree? (Education and Careers)

2. Become a registered nurse

After earning your nursing degree, the next step is to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) offered through the National Council for State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). This exam is required to become an RN in the United States and Canada. It includes topics such as promoting and maintaining health, psychosocial and physiological integrity and creating a safe and effective care environment.

Once you have passed the NCLEX, you can apply for a license from the Board of Nursing in the state where you plan to practice. Requirements vary by state, so check with your state's licensure board about qualifications. Many states now recognized the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC) which allows you to apply for a multi-state license to practice in compact-participating states without having to obtain additional licensure.

Related: 20 Helpful NCLEX Test-Taking Strategies and How To Use Them

3. Gain professional nursing experience

Typically, geriatric nurses work in general health care positions for several years before earning a certification in a specialty area, such as gerontology. You might start as a general bedside nurse at a hospital or community clinic, where you can develop your bedside manner and improve your skills.

These positions allow you to become comfortable helping patients of all ages and health conditions. You might also get a job as an RN at a care home. While senior nurses at these facilities usually have gerontology credentials, junior nursing employees might only have their state license.

Related: FAQ: Where Should an RN New Grad Work?

4. Earn certification

After you've worked as a nurse for at least 2 years and worked with an older adult patient population in a hospital or nursing home, you can earn a gerontological nursing certification through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). Prerequisites include:

  • A valid RN license

  • At least two years of full-time RN experience (or equivalent)

  • At least 2,000 hours of clinical practice in gerontological nursing within the last three years

  • 30 hours of continuing education in gerontological nursing in the last three years.

Related: 11 Top Professional Nursing Organizations: Networking and Certifications

Geriatric nursing skills

Geriatric nurses have many of the same basic skills as an RN, but they also develop additional skills that help them treat an aging patient population. Here are some key skills for these health care employees:

  • Knowledge of the aging process: As the body ages, it goes through gradual changes in its nutritional needs and healing processes. A skilled geriatric nurse understands the aging process so they can detect abnormalities and respond to emergencies.

  • Communication skills: While all nurses use their communication skills to interact with their patients and caretakers, nurses who treat older patients might encounter more barriers to communication, and they may then emphasize nonverbal communication to understand their patients' symptoms and reassure them.

  • Positive attitude: The aging process is different for everyone and some patients can feel anxious or unhappy during this period. Nurses who have a positive attitude can help their patients cope with difficult conditions and may recover more effectively when their patients die.

  • Organizational skills: Health care employees in the geriatric nursing field might work with multiple patients who have many medications and therapeutic processes. Their organizational skills ensure that each patient receives the correct dosage of medication and benefits from appropriate methods.

Related: Important Communication Skills for Nurses (With Tips)

How much does a geriatric nurse earn?

While Indeed does not have a specific salary for geriatric nursing specialists, the average salary for all nurses is $88,014 per year. Hospice nurses, who are geriatric nurses who specialize in providing end-of-life care for patients, make an average of $81,669 per year.

A geriatric nurse's salary might depend on their level of experience, location and the size of the facility they support. Salaried employees of hospitals and other health care facilities might receive additional benefits, like health insurance, paid time off and tuition reimbursement.

For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the links provided.

Related: 10 High-Paying Nursing Jobs (And How To Get One)

Geriatric nurse work environment

Geriatric nurses can work in a variety of health care settings, including hospitals, clinics, residential care facilities, nursing homes and retirement communities. Some hospitals and clinics operate special memory care centers employing geriatric nurses and providing care for older adults affected with conditions of memory decline.

Some geriatric nurses also provide care in the general community and travel to patients' homes to care for them as home health nurses. Experienced geriatric nurses might work as case managers or teach gerontology to students in nursing programs.

A geriatric nurse's responsibilities depend on the type and size of their employer, but generally, they work full time on a rotating shift pattern to provide constant care to their patients. As they progress in their career, they might have more standardized work hours. For example, a senior geriatric nurse manager at a large care facility might work during regular business hours and be on call for emergencies outside of that time.

Please note that none of the organizations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.


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