A University of Portland student nurse takes a patient’s blood pressure. (Courtesy University of Portland)
A University of Portland student nurse takes a patient’s blood pressure. (Courtesy University of Portland)
The United States is in the middle of a nursing shortage at a time when nurses and health care are needed more than ever.

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, 1 million registered nurses are projected to retire by 2030. Meanwhile, the population 65 and older is expected to more than double by 2060, according to a report from the Population Reference Bureau. An aging population and a lack of nurses are creating a high demand for professionals trained to care for the elderly.

The Northwest’s Catholic nursing schools at Gonzaga University, Seattle University and University of Portland incorporate gerontology — the study of aging — into courses. Curriculum gives students clinical experience with senior citizens to prepare future nurses for the age group.

Gonzaga University

Undergraduate students at Gonzaga in Spokane, Washington, have a clinical rotation through an elder care facility where they work with clients who require assistance ranging from assisted living to nursing home level of care.

Kaye Slater, lecturer of nursing, said students practice assessment skills and hands-on skills like taking blood pressure.

The clinical experiences and courses are influenced by the Jesuit identity of the university. Gonzaga leaders say they seek to instill Catholic values into their nursing curriculum.

“As a Jesuit Catholic university I would say there’s a deep respect of faith of all natures and origins and an understanding that care of the whole person, which is a Jesuit principle, is infused in everything that we do,” said Julie Derzay, undergraduate nursing program director.

Although elder care is not a popular nursing track, Slater said faculty at Gonzaga are encouraging students to go into the field. Most students are interested in pediatrics or labor and delivery.

“We’re trying to change their mindset,” Slater said. “And we often do change their mindset as well especially once we explain to them there’s so much elder care in the hospital units that they really do need to learn and appreciate that population and how to care for them.”

Seattle University

At the undergraduate level, nursing students at Seattle University take one theory course and one clinical course that focus on care for the elderly.

“Since they’re going to see older adults in all practice settings, we believe that if they get an understanding of normal changes older adults have ... that they will be able to differentiate what might be normal changes and what might be the impacts of chronic disease,” nursing professor Linda Johnson Trippett said.

Like Gonzaga, Seattle University is a Jesuit institution and these principles influence how they educate students.

“The Jesuit focus is of course on social justice and the other piece I would say is about preparing men and women for the world,” said Kristen Swanson, dean of the college of nursing. “In our college, we specifically say we are inspiring leaders to transform health care for a just and humane world.”

Swanson believes that all students in the nursing program need to be prepared to care for senior citizens. Seattle University also offers graduate programs focused on acute care and gerontology.

“It’s incredibly important that nursing students — in fact anybody in health care — is educated in ways to respectfully and safely care for aging members of society,” Swanson said.

University of Portland

The University of Portland School of Nursing is in the process of changing its curriculum. According to assistant professor of nursing Janet Banks, the new curriculum will include more content on gerontology.

Undergraduate student nurses take courses on the human lifespan and adult and elder health. During these courses, they take care of elderly clients.

Like Gonzaga and Seattle University, the University of Portland is influenced by its Catholic faith, having been founded and led by the Congregation of Holy Cross. Banks said students are encouraged to accept people where they are.

“I think our younger generations are much more inclusive and aware of differences and disparities,” Banks said. “I see a lot more social justice awareness in our incoming classes so I see more students interested in working with the older population than maybe I would have when I started here 10 years ago.”

U.P. social work majors also study ways to help this population and work with the elderly as a part of some of their courses.

Anissa Rogers, sociology and social work professor, teaches an elective on gerontology. Social work students also learn about policies and social issues related to senior citizens.

Rogers hopes the college eventually will have a certificate program for gerontology where students can combine the nursing and social work aspects of caring for the elderly.

“In every field I think we need people to be educated,” Rogers said. “There’s a real lack of education across the board around gerontology and I think there’s certainly a need — there always will be — but particularly right now.”

Pfeifer is a student journalist at University of Portland.