In 1901, New Zealand became the first country to have registered nurses. Since then, the role of nurses has changed, but at its core, nursing is a profession that cares for people and helps patients achieve optimal health. Today, nurses in aged care perform a variety of duties in residential facilities, hospitals and patients’ homes. No matter where they work, they have an important role in providing care to elderly people.
Residential care homes do not have the equipment and staff on hand to manage medical emergencies like hospitals do. Registered nurses have the skills to recognise sudden health changes and can take action and arrange further medical help if necessary.
Registered nurses are also qualified to deal with the day-to-day health requirements of residents. This includes managing health conditions, changing dressings and caring for the skin of patients restricted to beds. Elderly people often have more than one health condition, and medication and treatment schedules can be complicated. It is the registered nurse’s role to manage these complex treatment plans. Registered nurses often take on a supervisory role, guiding the actions of carers and enrolled nurses working in care homes.
Increasing evidence shows that registered nurses can take actions that have long-term benefits to patient’s health outcomes and quality of life. Studies have shown that when registered nurses spend quality time with residents, there are improvements in health and quality of life.
These studies looked at range-of-motion exercises that helped improve the resident’s ability to undertake day-to-day activities and decreased pain and depression. Another study showed reduced antipsychotic use and improvements in the behaviour of residents and the stress of caregivers when registered nurses helped tailor interventions for residents with challenging behaviour. A final study showed that when RNs spent just 30-40 minutes of quality time with residents, the incidence of urinary tract infections was greatly reduced. Nurses allowed to spend time with residents can recognise and treat issues before they take hold.
Registered nurses also have the experience and knowledge to help managers of residential care homes with operational planning. Many RNs are in management positions themselves. They recognise the areas for improvement in a facility and can help coordinate, deliver and monitor the actions taken to improve quality.
Registered nurses can also take a big-picture role in resident treatment. In a residential care home, the nurse will often be part of the primary team of caregivers that recognises changes in behaviours or health. They can advocate for residents to ensure they receive the care needed and work with doctors and other medical personnel to create a tailored, person-centred plan to manage the health of the residents.
Despite the crucial role registered nurses have in providing elderly people with positive health outcomes and a good quality of life, it has been hard to attract them to the aged-care sector. In the past, aged-care nurses were paid less than those working for District Health Boards. Additionally, gerontology, the aged-care specialisation, is no longer emphasised in nursing degrees.
Recent pay equity deals may help attract nurses to aged care, but the industry should think about how to ease stress among RNs in this field. Some of the stresses, such as watching the deterioration of the health, and often mind, of residents, dealing with aggressive and confused residents and coping with the residents’ eventual deaths, are a part of the job. Employers in the sector can help nurses cope with the stress by offering counselling services, ensuring there are enough staff to manage the demands of the home and encouraging holidays and a healthy work/life balance.
Registered nurses are an essential part of the team in residential care homes and in all of the aged-care sector. Aged-care businesses should look to nurses to guide their decisions about residents, the care required and ways to improve services and health outcomes. This will help them grow their businesses as well as ensure they have happy residents and families.