Every day, we grow older. Who will take care of us?
That question troubles Kelly Henrichs, associate professor at the University of Colorado College of Nursing at Anschutz Medical Campus. She knows by 2050, the U.S. Census says more than 20% of Americans or 88 million people will be over the age of 65. Yet, less than 1% of registered nurses and 3% of advanced practice RNs are certified in geriatrics. That’s why Henrichs has started requiring her nursing students to get to know older adults during a clinical rotation.
“What I really want them to see is that not all older adult patients are sick, not all of them are disabled, or have dementia. I want them to come to this community and see what healthy aging looks like. Seniors are very engaged and they can still be vibrant, active and involved,” says Kelly Henrichs, DNP, RN, GNP-BC.
Henrichs practices once a week as a gerontological nurse practitioner, providing primary care to older adults. She found her passion and purpose taking care of seniors when she was around her students’ ages.
“Once I started as a bedside nurse, I realized that my favorite patient was the older adult patient who had a rich history and a story to tell. And lots of appreciation. I feel the gerontology patient always had the most appreciation for what I was doing for them and was very sincere. So, they always touched my heart,” says Henrichs, whose own family has influenced her positive outlook on aging. With a grandmother who was active and volunteered until 88 years old, and her mother who at 70 rides her bike daily and doesn’t take any medication, Henrichs knows what healthy aging can look like.
That’s why she requires her students to perform a 4-hour clinical rotation at the Holly Creek or Someren Glen assisted living communities in Centennial. The students must interview and participate in activities with the residents who live there.
“We do a great job of exposing our nursing students to the inpatient clinical setting and they see patients who are sick and there's absolutely a strong place for that. However, not every nurse wants to go into acute care. There are other options. They can work in assisted living, or a memory care unit, or a long-term care facility,” says Henrichs.
“I could not have been more wrong about my biases. They're not different people. There is intellectual diversity in this population and so much love and happiness and excitement. They’re dynamic and versatile and useful people.”
-Sam Wellman, BS in nursing student
Unconscious Bias of Aging Influences Perceptions of Students
But negative stereotypes abound about growing old. Failing health. Confusion. Needing constant help. Sometimes combative. Unwilling to follow directions. Henrichs is trying to end that unconscious bias.
“Research has shown that when you survey undergrad nurses and ask, ‘Where do you want to work after graduation?’ There are just not a whole lot of people who raise their hands and say they want to do geriatrics. We typically hear a lot about labor and delivery and pediatrics,” says Henrichs.
26-year-old Bachelor of Science in Nursing student Sam Wellman admits that before his class with professor Henrichs, he was jaded about working with older adults.
“Me and other students thought old means unhealthy and aging means deteriorating,” says Sam, a student in the University of Colorado College of Nursing’s Accelerated Nursing (UCAN) program. “We're spry, we're healthy and we're ambitious, so we want to work in the elite level of nursing and with people who are really sick, not because they're old. We hold a bias that working with the elderly is not fun, not exciting, and not dynamic.’”
During Sam’s clinical rotation at Someren Glen, he sat in a men’s group and listened as they shared stories of love and loss, struggle, healing, coping and learning. He said the experience was transformative.
“I could not have been more wrong about my biases,” says Sam. “They're not different people. There is intellectual diversity in this population and so much love and happiness and excitement. They’re dynamic and versatile and useful people. It completely changed the paradigm. Suddenly I'm realizing it's a really spectacular experience and these are people who have so much to offer.”
Another student said, “I had prejudices going into this clinical experience related to how older adults live and continue to age. I was pleasantly surprised to see healthy and happy older adults still living independently and enjoying the activities they love.”
In fact, being old isn’t what it used to be. The average life expectancy in the U.S. is 79 years for people born after 2017, with women living longer than men. Other factors like healthy lifestyles, exercise, and medical advancements mean people are staying healthy and active in those golden years.
Experience Surprises Students
During the clinical rotations, the students meet vivacious seniors. Resident George Scheuernstuhl, a former engineer, rides his bike 15 miles a day and lifts weights at 83. Retired physician Ed Van Bramer swims daily. 83-year-old Glenda Prosser, a former librarian, runs the library for residents at Someren Glen. Former piano player John Michael Templin is still tickling the ivories for his friends at the age of 82. Margie Bogner, 90, knits, crochets, sings and volunteers at a local children’s crisis center. Vera Schum says she stays young at 90 by volunteering, painting and attending lectures and workshops.
Husband and wife Wes and Jeri Couthen, who are both retired career Air Force officers, walk a mile every morning and are so busy at the Holly Creek residence, they need to keep a social calendar.
“I want to stay as healthy and active as possible for as long as possible, and stave off all of those chronic illnesses so I can enjoy this life,” says Jeri Couthen, 74.
"I remember in my 40s thinking what it must be like to be 60 or 70, or retired. And it's not anything like that. I realize I'm living around people here who are in their 90s. There's a lady here who's getting ready to celebrate her 100th birthday. I have all that to look forward to. So, it's not with a scowl that I look forward. It's with a smile and an appreciation of all the things that are possible,” said Wes Couthen, 68.
Partners Not Parents in Care
Most seniors like the Couthens say they want nurses who will be partners, not parents, in their medical care because they have vast life experiences.
“I'm a firm believer that life is not about what you get. It's about what you give. And this opportunity offered by CU Nursing is perfect to fill that give bucket with a lot of things for other people,” said Wes Couthen.
Resident Peter Jenkins says he’s never been sick. He plays golf, goes to the gym daily, sits on three committees, has read 144 books in the last couple of years, and is learning to play the piano - at age 83.
“We come with lifelong experiences. When people deal with us, they think we're older and life has gone by us. But if they would treat us with respect, I tell you, they would learn a lot of things. People have incredible experiences here, and the knowledge here is just unbelievable. So, I think this would have a huge impact on the patients and on the students.” Peter Jenkins, former professor said.
His wife is just as active. Judy Stalnaker, 78, works out daily, quilts, writes the monthly newsletter, is part of a writing circle and serves on the resident board of directors. All that with multiple sclerosis.
“If I'm using my scooter, they might think ‘Oh, because she's physically not able to walk that her mind doesn't work either. But obviously that's not true. I'm really very busy all the time,” says Judy Stalnaker, former professor. “I think students will be surprised to learn we enjoy life and are fun to work with. “
“They don’t warehouse people around here,” says resident Don Parker, 92. “All of your ideas for activities are accepted and welcome.”
The senior residences offer multiple activities every day for seniors who want to participate. With weight rooms, pools, restaurants and meeting rooms, the residences look more like hotels than housing for seniors.
While student Sam Wellman’s dream is to work as a nurse in the mental health field, this experience has shown him he also wants to volunteer with older adults to stay connected to a different generation.
“I certainly want to put in time across my life and career towards loving and caring about older people. And that was not the case prior to this experience, not at all. I didn't even really think about it,” says Sam.
Henrichs hopes other students will also choose to help people thrive – at any age.
“I hope this rotation reverses ageism and the students see that, okay, there are opportunities other than pediatrics and labor and delivery. If I can get just one of them to want to work in geriatrics, then to me, that’s a win…If you go into gerontology, you'll never want for a job.”