What Is a Geriatric Nurse?

nurse walks with senior patient
nurse walks with senior patient

Geriatric Nurse at a Glance

What you’ll do: A geriatric nurse cares for the elderly, focusing on the development and implementation of treatment plans for chronic illnesses, including diabetes, hypertension, and respiratory disorders. They also educate and counsel families of elderly patients who suffer from acute and chronic conditions.

Minimum degree you’ll need to practice: Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

Certification: Certification is a formal process that validates your qualifications and knowledge on a subject or specialty. In many cases, earning certification may position you to earn a higher salary and advance in your career. If you hold an active registered nurse (RN) license and meet other requirements, you can earn a Gerontological Nursing Certification through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC).

Median annual salary: $77,600

Geriatrics is a healthcare specialty that focuses on the clinical care of older adults. Often, this means working in skilled nursing facilities or assisted living communities and providing daily care to the people who live there.

Geriatric nurses are sometimes referred to as gerontological nurses. No matter the title, nurses in this specialty take on challenges and responsibilities that require compassion, patience, and understanding. They provide care to patients with physical and mental health conditions that can make it difficult for those patients to communicate, care for themselves, remember instructions, or walk even short distances safely. Geriatric nurses might be responsible for patients who are at a high risk of falling, or who are unable to verbally express pain, hunger, and other needs.

Despite the challenges, geriatric nursing can be a very rewarding nursing specialty. Many geriatric nurses enjoy working in long-term care settings because it allows them to get to know each patient. This can be a great chance to not only form a strong patient-caregiver bond but to learn from the people you care for.

Many geriatric nurses enjoy working in long-term care settings because it allows them to get to know each patient.

“Geriatric nursing is unique because the population that you care for is unique,” says Carrie D. Brecheisen, RN, a geriatric nurse with more than 30 years of experience in the field. Brecheisen is the nursing supervisor for Saint Raphael Nursing Services in Wichita, Kansas. “This generation is living history. The seniors have so many great and eye-opening stories. They have first-hand accounts of some of the biggest historical events.”

How to Become a Geriatric Nurse

The first step to becoming a geriatric nurse is to pursue either a two-year Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. While employers are increasingly requiring applicants to hold a BSN for most nursing positions, both options will prepare you to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). Once you pass the exam, you can apply for RN licensure in your state.

You can work as an entry-level geriatric nurse once you have your RN license. Once you gain experience, your degree can influence how you advance in your role. For instance, if you earned a BSN, you might be able to take on leadership or administrative roles in geriatric nursing.

“Geriatric nurses can work in many facets within long-term care, skilled nursing, or assisted living,” Brecheisen says.

Such jobs may include:

You can advance your geriatric nursing career even further by earning a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and becoming an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN)

As a geriatric APRN, there are two primary paths you could take:

Geriatric Nurse Practitioner: Geriatric nurse practitioners act as primary care providers for older adults. They can assess, diagnose, and prescribe treatments, including medications, to patients that they see. They might also visit patients in nursing facilities and assisted living settings to provide care.

Geriatric Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS): A geriatric clinical nurse specialist provides advanced care to geriatric patients and works in a leadership capacity to improve nursing care and patient safety in their facility. 

Licenses and Certifications

There are no certifications required to practice as a geriatric nurse. However, earning certification is a great idea. It shows that you’re dedicated to your specialty and that you have the experience and education you need to deliver excellent patient care. Plus, certification can help you stand out to employers and might increase your job prospects.

The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) offers the Gerontological Nursing Certification (GERO-BC).  You’ll need an RN license in good standing to be eligible for this certification. Other eligibility requirements include:

  • At least two years of full-time RN experience
  • At least 2,00 hours of clinical experience in gerontological nursing within the past three years
  • At least 30 hours of continuing education in gerontological nursing in the last three years

You’ll need to pass an exam for certification. Your certification will need to be renewed every five years. You’ll need to earn 75 continuing education credit hours for renewal.

What’s the Difference: Geriatric Nurse vs Gerontologist

It’s easy to get geriatric nursing and gerontology confused. The two roles sound very similar, and they do have a lot in common. However, there are some important differences.

Geriatric nursing focuses on caring for the physical and mental health needs of older adults. It involves providing treatment and direct health care to people in clinical settings.

Gerontology is a healthcare role, but not a nursing role. A gerontologist focuses on the social and psychosocial effects of aging along with physical and mental health needs.

Gerontologists often take on administrative and customer service roles and advocate for changes in public policy. They are rarely involved in direct patient care, although this has shifted some in recent years.

Geriatric Nurses:Gerontologists:
Need an RN licenseNeed a bachelor’s degree, often a master’s
Earn a median income of $77,600 a yearEarn a median income of $91,510 a year
Focus on patient careFocus on public policy and sociology

Salary Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021

What Do Geriatric Nurses Do?

Geriatric nurses are responsible for a wide range of tasks. They take on standard RN duties such as administering medications, caring for wounds, providing treatments, monitoring vital signs, and developing patient care plans. However, because they are caring for older adults, there are specific concerns and responsibilities for geriatric nurses. For instance, geriatric nurses must have an understanding of conditions that are common among older adults, including:

  • Diabetes
  • Heart failure
  • Arthritis
  • Osteoporosis
  • Stroke
  • Cancer
  • Dementia
  • Chronic pain
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Limited mobility or loss of mobility

Geriatric nurses manage many of these conditions daily. They know the challenges these conditions can present, and they know the most effective way to provide care to patients who have them. This often adds job duties such as:

  • Monitoring patients who might be at risk of falling and developing safety plans
  • Helping patients with limited mobility perform a range of motion activities and exercises
  • Ensure patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia are secure and well cared for
  • Checking on patients who are unable to communicate their needs to make sure they’re clean, safe, and not in pain
  • Watching for changes in patients’ mental health that might signal feelings of depression or isolation
  • Communicating with family members about patients’ health and progress

Where You’ll Work

Geriatric nurses can find work in settings such as hospitals and skilled nursing facilities. Other common workplaces include:

  • Hospices
  • U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare facilities
  • Home health care agencies
  • Assisted living facilities
  • Retirement communities
  • Physicians’ offices
  • Mental health hospitals

However, you might work in some unexpected locations, too.

“A surprising workplace is convents,” Brecheisen says. “With the aging population, there are not enough nuns joining to care for the elder population, so they need to hire outside nursing care.”

Salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t track data for nursing specialties. However, the median annual salary for all RNs is $75,330. As a geriatric nurse, your specific job title and level of experience can have an impact on your salary.

For instance, as Brecheisen mentioned, geriatric RNs with years in the role can take on management and leadership roles in skilled nursing or other long-term care facilities. The BLS reports that medical and healthcare service managers working in nursing and long-term care facilities earn a median salary of $89,880.

Advancing your education could also boost your salary significantly. Nurse practitioners across all specialties earn a median salary of $111,680, according to BLS data.

Career Outlook

Healthcare careers are on the rise. The baby boomer generation, one of America’s largest generations, is aging. This will lead to a huge spike in healthcare careers for two primary reasons.

The first reason is retirement. As baby boomer professionals retire, they’ll create openings all over the workforce, including in nursing, that will need to be filled by skilled and educated replacements.

The second reason is that, as a rule, people need more healthcare as they age. Having a larger number of older Americans than ever before means there will be greater demand for healthcare services.

Together, these factors mean healthcare careers are skyrocketing.

Nursing is one area projected to see major growth. The BLS projects a 9% increase in all RN roles from 2020 to 2030. The growth of APRN roles is expected to be even more impressive, with a projected increase of 45%.

The BLS doesn’t make projections specific to geriatric nurses. However, Brecheisen says that geriatrics is a specialty where there is a major demand for qualified nurses.

The BLS projects a 9% increase in all RN roles and a 45% increase in APRN roles by 2030.

“The nursing shortage is hitting in every field and geriatric nurses are always needed,” Brecheisen says.

Is Geriatric Nursing for Me?

Nursing is a field that draws compassionate, empathetic, and caring people. To take on the specialty of geriatric nursing, you’ll also need a good deal of patience, excellent communication skills, and the ability to stay calm in a crisis. You’ll also need to be resilient, as you’re likely to see many patients decline and pass away during your time as a geriatric nurse.

Other helpful traits include:

  • Flexibility
  • Understanding
  • Active listening
  • Openness to learning new things
  • Ability to adapt to challenging situations and people
  • A sense of humor
  • Strong problem-solving skills

Professional Resources

Staying current on news, trends, and research is an important part of building your career. By connecting with professional associations, you can develop career networks and ensure you’re always in the loop. There are many associations and resources current and aspiring geriatric nurses might find helpful:

Organization

What They Do


The American Society on Aging (ASOA)

ASOA is committed to helping people who work with older adults—including nurses, social workers, gerontologists, and other professionals—increase their skills and knowledge.

The American Geriatrics Society (AGS)

AGS is focused on the clinical care of older Americans and the professionals who provide it. AGS advocates for healthcare reforms and policies that can benefit older Americans. You’ll also find career resources and industry news.

Gerontological Advanced Practice Nurses Association (GAPNA)

GAPNA is focused on geriatric APRNs. However, they also accept geriatric RNs as members. The association provides continuing education opportunities, career resources, conferences, and more. 



stephanie behring

Written and reported by:

Stephanie Behring

Contributing Writer

carrie brecheisen

With professional insight from:

Carrie D. Brecheisen, RN

Nursing Supervisor, Saint Raphael Nursing Services