Gerontology nurse practitioners face a unique set of challenges within their field. It comes with the territory of caring for older adults that issues such as death, dying, terminal illness, and chronic illness are commonly addressed.
There are many challenges families face when caring for an older relative. For example, the loss of independence a geriatric patient may have. Families may need to step in and care for the aging patient, which, unfortunately, can add stress to their daily lives. This buildup of stress can lead to caregiver burnout, depression, anxiety, tension within the family, and even anger or resentment.
Another possible challenge is the imbalance of perceived “power” within the family. A scenario for this would be if an elderly patient moves in with their adult child and their family. For many years, the patient was the head of household; the one who made decisions and ran the home. Now, the adult child is the head of household, while the aging parent/ family member is an occupant. The family may experience a “power struggle” which can lead to conflict and strife within the home.
Dealing with chronic illness is another prominent challenge – possibly one of the most significant. Dementia, for example, is a condition which does not improve over time. Dementia affects almost half of adults over age 85. The early stages are the most difficult, as patients experience forgetfulness which could lead to safety concerns (i.e., wandering away from home, leaving the stove on, etc.). Family members may become frustrated easy, but as the disease progresses, they may experience a prolonged “mourning” of the patient.
Along with situational components, there are other factors that contribute to a family’s dynamic. Socioeconomic level, education level, cultural differences, and even something as basic as personalities all contribute to how a family interacts with each other and deals with stress.
Tips for Geriatric Nurse Practitioners
When dealing with geriatric patients and their families, it’s important to first acknowledge that each family unit has unique dynamics. From there, utilizing the nursing process is a great way to address the individual needs of the patient and family. Below are some tips, using the nursing process, that can help geriatric NPs manage the sometimes-complicated dynamics within families.
The first thing geriatric NPs should do is assess the family’s interactions and communication skills. Ideally, meeting with both the family and patient is ideal. Assessing communication skills such as active listening, non-confrontational statements, and body language will help the NP determine how effective communication is within the family, and what needs to be improved. Geriatric NPs can also assess the patient and family’s knowledge base, readiness to learn, and if anyone is experiencing any of the stages of grief.
After assessing the family dynamics and interactions, geriatric NPs can create a “diagnosis” of what they may need. For example, if the daughter of an elderly patient with dementia can no longer care for the patient, the NP will need to take action in terms of finding a suitable living arrangement. Another example is if the son of an elderly patient with a chronic disease becomes easily frustrated and angry with them. The NP would have to develop a plan to address the issue.
After assessing the family and patient’s needs and determining what is needed, the geriatric NP must create a plan to meet their individual needs. Because the needs of the patient and family are unique, breaking apart the needs of each family member will help tailor a plan to help create a healthy family dynamic. For example, using the first scenario above, the NP can create a plan to help the family find a care home for the patient, while assisting to help them manage the emotions involved with possible feelings of loss of control and fear. In the other example, the NP can consider arranging appointments for the son to see a counselor to deal with his feelings regarding his parent’s chronic illness, and how to communicate in a positive manner.
The implementation phase of the nursing process is putting the plans into process. For the geriatric NP, this means arranging appointments, providing resources, and collaborating with the rest of the care team. Using the examples above, that could mean providing a list of care homes, putting the family in touch with a social worker, and/or recommending a counselor for the significant life change of transitioning to a care home. In the second example, the NP can recommend family counseling as well, and possibly provide tips for stress management for caregivers.
Evaluating a patient and family’s response to the recommended plan is one of the most essential pieces of dealing with altered family dynamics. This phase is a delicate process, as the NP needs to ensure the family has not only followed through with the treatment plan, but that it was effective as well. If not, the planning and implementation phase would need to be re-structured. In the examples used above, that would mean making follow-up calls to see how the elderly patient is doing in the care home, how the family and patient are doing with the transition, and if there are any other needs. In the second example, the NP can follow up with the elderly patient’s son to see how he is dealing with his parent’s chronic illness. It may also mean working to help manage the chronic illness as well.
Working with families is not unique to nurses and nurse practitioners. However, working with aging patients and their families presents a different set of challenges. While it’s impossible to provide tips on every potential challenge geriatric NPs may face, going back to basics using the nursing process will help identify each individual need so that a plan can be developed to address them. One of the most important things to remember is to include the family whenever possible in the decision-making process, and to maintain as much dignity and independence as possible for the geriatric patient.