National Nurses Week 2015: Celebrating Profiles of Geriatrics in Nursing—Phyllis J. Atkinson


Phyllis J. Atkinson, RN, MS, GNP-BC, WCC
Gerontological Nurse Practitioner

The field of geriatrics relies on so many different healthcare professionals to provide expert, high-quality, patient-centered care for older adults. In honor of National Nurses Week 2015 (May 6-12), we’re celebrating the commitment of nurses committed to elder care by helping them share their stories in their own words. Here’s what Phyllis J. Atkinson had to say about her career as a gerontological nurse practitioner.

Phyllis Atkinson remembers, vividly, the day she started rethinking her career in nursing. A critical care nurse, Atkinson was working at a small hospital in Ohio at the time. One morning, an elderly man was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit. He was very frail and gravely ill.

Though it was clear that the man didn’t want invasive procedures or treatments—he resisted with the last of his strength—the ICU team followed protocol and proceeded to restrain and treat him.

“We did all these invasive things to this gentleman, who eventually died,” Atkinson recalls. “I witnessed how he died: It was a death with literally no dignity. And I realized there was something we didn’t understand, something that we could be doing differently to provide him and others like him with more dignity at the end of their lives. I also realized that I wanted to know how older people differ from younger people, and that I wanted to be an advocate for them.”

That realization ultimately led Atkinson to become a geriatric nurse practitioner, a GNP.

Growing up in northwestern Ohio, Atkinson planned on a career in medicine right from the start. She was the kind of kid who asked for chemistry sets for Christmas and caught and dissected frogs to teach herself anatomy. After finishing high school, she completed a three-year nursing diploma program at Toledo Hospital School of Nursing. To become a GNP, she then had to earn her Bachelor’s in Nursing, and then her Master’s. She did both at Ohio State University . Meanwhile, she continued working in hospital ICUs while she and her husband raised their son and daughter. In 1993, she was one of the first to graduate from Ohio State’s newly established GNP program.

Drawn to critical care because of the highly demanding nature of the work, Atkinson found geriatrics even more demanding—and satisfying.

“Geriatrics is more challenging than critical care for a number of reasons,” says Atkinson, 48, who now manages a team of 10 nurse practitioners caring for older adults in nursing homes in the Cincinnati area. She’s is a part-time adjunct professor at Northern Kentucky University, where she teaches geriatrics to nursing students. Among other things, older adults often have multiple, chronic health problems, which makes their care more complex, she says. In addition, geriatrics emphasizes the importance of collaborating closely with the patient—to ensure that his or her treatment isn’t only effective, but that it’s also what he or she wants.

Despite the coming Age Boom, interest in GNP programs lags in part because many universities discourage NPs from specializing, lest this limit their marketability, Atkinson says. Students’ misconceptions about geriatrics also play a role, she adds. “They think it’s not going to be challenging, so I tell them that I know from experience that this is even more challenging than critical care,” she adds.

Looking back at her career in geriatric nursing, Atkinson says she has no regrets about switching from critical care. She offers an anecdote to illustrate why. The anecdote is also about an older adult at the end of life, but it differs dramatically from her experience with the elderly man whose death marked a turning point in her career.

“We had this one patient who was in end-stage dementia,” says Atkinson. “She had severe complications from diabetes and one of her physicians recommended bilateral amputations of her extremities. But her family decided they didn’t want to hospitalize or amputate, but to focus on palliative comfort care instead. So we worked with them to reassure them that they knew what was best for her. We had multiple meetings; we called them almost daily until she died. I can’t tell you how rewarding it was to support them in making decisions that focused on the quality of this woman’s life at the end of her life.”

For National Nurses Week 2015, Let’s Salute Nurses Caring for Older Adults

Florence_Nightingale_headshotUntil a wealthy young woman named Florence Nightingale entered the profession in the mid-1800s, nursing got very little attention—very few prominent women would even consider nursing as an appropriate career choice (and male nurses were even rarer). Thanks to Nightingale’s pioneering and courageous efforts, especially during the Crimean War (she revolutionized the care of soldiers by instituting hygienic practices), we began to recognize nurses for the essential, invaluable roles they play in health and care for all.

In honor of Nurse Nightingale, we first celebrated National Nurses Week in 1954, on the 100th anniversary of Nightingale’s Crimean Mission, though it took a presidential proclamation nearly 25 years later to recognize the week officially. is particularly delighted this week to salute the hardworking, dedicated nurses who specialize in caring for our older adults. Their mission is an especially essential one as our population ages because of the complex challenges and opportunities so many older adults will face and the role nurses play in making them less daunting and more manageable.

Geriatric and advanced practice nurses serve in many different kinds of settings—hospitals, long-term care or rehabilitation facilities, senior centers, retirement communities, managed care organizations, and public health agencies, as well as in patients’ homes. Often, nurses work as part of a treatment team that includes several other healthcare professionals. Those with master’s degrees from nurse practitioner programs can diagnose and treat both acute and chronic illnesses, and in most states they can prescribe medications, too.

Geriatric and advanced practice nurses will work with older adults to:

  • Assess their mental status and thinking skills;
  • Understand and help manage acute and chronic health issues;
  • Discuss common health concerns, including falls, incontinence, sleep and sexual issues;
  • Organize medications;
  • Explain personal safety and disease prevention;
  • Help them understand and stick to their medication regimen; and
  • Achieve a healthy diet, among many other responsibilities.

During National Nurses Week—and all year long—we’re glad to have the opportunity to honor the contributions these talented and caring professionals make to the lives of older adults and their loved ones.

Culturally Sensitive Care Celebrates Diversity in All its Forms


Manuel A. Eskildsen, MD, MPH, CMD, AGSF
Associate Chief of Geriatrics for Education
Director, Emory Geriatric Medicine Fellowship Program
Associate Professor of Medicine
Division of General Medicine and Geriatrics
Emory University School of Medicine


Taking care of older adults is extraordinarily rewarding to me—I’m always moved by the fascinating life stories and challenges my patients share. In particular, I find it especially fulfilling to help simplify an older adult’s care when he or she is coping with complex problems. That’s an especially satisfying part of my job.

But sometimes, when you’re dealing with older adults who have unique health needs—like members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) community—you run into different kinds of issues that aren’t just about simplifying medical solutions. For example, I especially remember the death of an older gay man whose story stuck with me because he died alone. Sadly, his death spoke to a truth that exists for many older LGBT people: they are more likely to be socially isolated than their heterosexual peers. Many don’t have children, and significant numbers of LGBT adults may also be estranged from their biological families. There are many factors that have contributed to this reality, but principal among them is the fact that many older LGBT people grew up at a time when their sexuality was a stigma they didn’t feel comfortable sharing. In those days, there was very little—if any—social support for someone who identified as LGBT.

One of the great fears I’m sure many of us share is that we’ll die alone—unfortunately, like that patient I remember so clearly, this is a particularly heightened concern for older LGBT adults. That’s what makes our job as geriatricians and geriatrics healthcare professionals all the more important—especially as we commemorate culturally sensitive care during national awareness events like Minority Health Month. We as elder care providers—and informed patients—can start helping to change how older LGBT adults are treated, especially at the end of their lives, by being sensitive to their needs and respectful of their health, care, and personhood. This is why I’m so gratified by the recent AGS position statement covering the care of older LGBT adults. It will help health professionals and older adults alike pioneer fairer and more equitable treatment for LGBT people who can be subject to discrimination in health care and society. Continue reading

Celebrating the Medicare #DocFix

Photo credit: David W. Parke II, MD

Photo credit: David W. Parke II, MD

This week, I made a pilgrimage to Washington DC to attend a reception in the White House Rose Garden at the invitation of President Obama. It was a heady moment for this new CEO of the American Geriatrics Society and the Health in Aging Foundation. My 91-year old mother and her friends were quite impressed–going so far as to ask me to put in a good word for older adults. Got that covered, Mom.

Putting aside the excitement of seeing the Rose Garden and shaking President Obama’s hand (I admit shaking a President’s hand is really exciting), why was this moment so important for geriatrics health professionals and the older adults they serve? Congress, in a rare bi-partisan, bicameral moment, had passed The Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act and President Obama signed it into law April 16, 2015.

I won’t go into all the details of the bill here—nor will I try to explain the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR), which may be what you heard a lot about in the news related to this legislation. Suffice it to say, this new legislation finally fixes a huge problem for geriatrics health professionals and the older adults they serve.

Geriatrics health professionals are specially trained to care for older adults (learn more about these professionals here; we can even help you find one here). Having benefited from their expertise as a family caregiver, I know first hand how different it is to partner with someone with this kind of training when caring for my loved ones. They always start the care process by considering what matters to older patients and their families as people, and then work back to how they can help you get there.

Geriatrics healthcare professionals are pretty much wholly paid by Medicare, so a looming cut in payment of more than 20% annually is a big deal when you still have practice expenses to pay (that’s what these health professionals faced under the old SGR system). We don’t often talk about the business of medicine, but if you are in private practice you have expenses just like any other business. These include rent, staff (most geriatrics health professionals work in teams), equipment, supplies; malpractice insurance and your own health insurance. Like any other business, a sharp drop in revenue could endanger your ability to provide services. And that, in a nutshell, was the broader threat of the old SGR formula. With a stroke of the President’s pen, that threat is gone.

President Obama addressing reception attendees.

Continue reading

Supporting who we are, what we need, and how we age as individuals — Ethnogeriatrics & Minority Health Month


Sharon A. Brangman, MDVJ_Periyakoil
Professor of Medicine
Division Chief, Geriatrics
SUNY Upstate Medical University

VJ Periyakoil, MD

Stanford Successful Aging Program

Clinical Associate Professor
Stanford University School of Medicine


While each person is unique and wonderful, no two bodies are the same—and no two people will age in identical ways. That’s one of the joys, and also one of the challenges, in caring for older adults.

Geriatrics, the healthcare field specialized in caring for older people, has given us great knowledge about the health issues commonly seen in older adults and guides how to provide high-quality care to aging Americans. Even so, we also know that there will be twists, turns, and uncharted destinations along every person’s journey toward healthy aging. However, if older adults work in partnership with their healthcare team and family, life with quality is an attainable goal for all. In fact, that’s one of the critical life lessons we can take away from National Minority Health Month this April.

What is National Minority Month?
National Minority Health Month helps raise awareness for disparities in health and care among specific groups of people known as minorities. Minority groups like American Indians, Alaska Natives, Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders account for more than 35% of the U.S. population. Health and care aren’t completely different from one of these groups to the next, but minority health experiences do help highlight how certain conditions, concerns, and challenges may impact some of us differently than others. That’s an important distinction—so important, in fact, that an entire field of geriatrics known as “ethnogeriatrics” has developed around ways to provide culturally competent care to older adults from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Ethnogeriatrics is about finding important intersections between ethnicity, aging, and health to provide high-quality care. A perfect example of this type of work is a new tool that the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) developed with AARP to help a specific group of older adults who are Chinese Americans better understand and drive their own well-being.

“Chinese American Older Adults: A Guide to Managing Your Health”
This free resource highlights the most common health concerns in the Chinese American older adult community and ways that patients and caregivers can talk to healthcare providers about addressing them.

Health concerns like hepatitis B, certain types of cancer, depression, tuberculosis, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some genetic diseases are common among Chinese Americans. Many of these conditions require not only expert care but also sensitivity to cultural norms that can help or hinder care depending on how they are addressed. Continue reading