What is it like to be a geriatric nurse?

Translated by Herbert Meck

In our new series, club visitors tell us about their everyday work. Today we get to know Anton*. He works as a geriatric nurse in a facility in Upper Bavaria.

What do you do for a living? How long have you been doing this job?

I am currently training to be a geriatric nurse and am in my 3rd year of training.

How did you get into this profession?

I think I was just curious about what senior citizens think or what is important to them at their age, how they like to spend their free time and why? Since I never had older people around me in my life, I was really interested in how senior citizens actually live their lives. Yes, and in my 2 years as a trainee I found out that senior citizens are not much different from younger people. They eat and drink, they read books, watch TV, go for walks, they can be nice or angry, they make jokes. Maybe I’ve got so used to them that I can’t see much difference any more.

What does your normal working day look like?

I put on my work clothes and go to the ward where I am currently scheduled. The team then does a small so-called “handover” before the shift starts, in which they discuss the most important things for the upcoming shift. Who is getting visitors, who is not feeling well at the moment, does someone have to go to a doctor’s appointment, etc. Then each person is assigned a group of residents for whom they are responsible during their shift. The number of residents depends very much on the amount of staff. On my current ward and facility, you are responsible for an average of 8 to 10 residents per shift, which is seen as a “normal” amount. I would then have about 15-20 minutes of basic care per shift for each resident, which is very little.

First you help the residents get ready for breakfast. Then they have breakfast. After that, the caregivers are there. They entertain the residents with different games, choir, singing together, reading books, church services, handicrafts. Some residents have different appointments, just like people outside the old people’s home. Then there is lunch, lunch break, coffee and cake around 3 pm and again, care appointments. Then dinner, evening care and then it’s off to bed. That is a rough description of a typical working day. But now you have to keep in mind that our residents are mainly in need of help, otherwise they wouldn’t be in the home. This means that for each of the activities described above, they need the help of the nursing staff, among other things, to wash their bodies, to get dressed and undressed, to feed themselves, to walk. There are residents who need only light support, but there are also residents who can no longer move at all.

If possible, the residents must be clean, have eaten, drank, medicines must be taken. You should also be able to take the necessary measures to prevent illness. You should be able to deal well with residents, communicate well with them, motivate them to get up, eat, go for a walk, etc., if you want to provide good care. However, it has to be said that, apart from washing, none of these activities are obligatory for the senior citizens. If the resident does not want to do something, no matter if it is harmful for them or not, we must not force anyone to do anything. 

Each shift lasts 8 hours with a half hour break in between. 

Early shift: Start 6:30 End 3 p.m. On average 4 employees

Late shift: Start 12:00 End 20:30 On average 2 employees

Night shift: Start 20:30 End 6:30 On average 1 staff member

Part-time shift: 7:00 to 10:00 and 14:00 to 20:00 in the same day. This means that you have to go to work twice.

What other tasks do you have to do at work that are not normally associated with your job?

The preparation of the food. We have to prepare some of the food for the residents, cut it, grease it and so on. Tidying up the kitchen. We not only have to make sure that our residents are well looked after, but also their rooms, wardrobes, bathrooms, etc.

We also take over some of the care tasks. We play with the residents, read to them, watch TV or read a book together or listen to something. Of course, you don’t always have time for that, but it’s part of it from time to time. Especially if you want to find that time yourself.

Medical treatments – Care is not only “washing”, it also includes changing bandages, administering injections, changing catheters or the care of an artificial bowel outlet.

What do you like most about your job?

What I like most is the interaction with the elderly, of course. There are some elderly people who have dementia, for example, and they can behave differently from the way we are used to adults behaving.  What they say is honest and their behaviour is also honest. No more masks and playfulness, which is what you normally experience in life. If they are angry and don’t like you, they won’t hide it. Just the same with all other emotions. They can put their clothes on backwards, hold the spoon the wrong way and try to eat with it, walk around completely naked, think that a blanket is a hat and many other things where we would normally think “That’s not normal!”.  I personally enjoy working with them because they challenge this notion of “normal”. The way the residents behave is also completely normal. It’s their kind of “normal”, not ours, and we have to deal with it. And that’s what I like best. It’s like another world there on the gerontological ward. Of course, working with dementia patients can also be challenging. You have to learn how to deal with them first. I also like the communication with the elderly who are still fit in the head. They can give really good advice for life.

What do you find exhausting in your job?

Firstly, my job can be physically demanding because we have some residents who are relatively large or heavy and need a lot of help. Also, when there are not enough staff, shifts are constantly changing or you work eight to ten days straight. You are very tired at the end. Also, it’s exhausting when you just have to run back and forth for eight hours with few breaks.

Secondly, I think it can also be psychologically stressful if you are a bit more sensitive. Many residents are depressed. They know that they are at the end of life. They regret many things in their lives. Many residents don’t want to live any more and they say that all the time. And yes, you are always in an atmosphere where everything is a bit sad and then you have to stay positive. Of course it’s easier on good days, but you also have worse days when it’s not so easy to bear this mood.

Do you think you earn well and sufficiently for your work?

At the moment, as a trainee, I earn more than other trainees in other professions, as far as I know. As a single person, I would say it is enough for the most important things in life, like rent, food, tickets etc. After the apprenticeship, my salary should double. I would say my wage is sufficient, but not fair for such a physically and mentally demanding job, where shifts change all the time, where you have to fill in all the time, where you have no stability when it comes to duty rosters, where you also have to work on holidays. Sometimes I think to myself, ‘okay, you could earn more’. Especially when you hear that someone in another profession earns not just a little more, but significantly more. I’m not saying that the others should earn less, but it would be fair if salaries were to rise to a fair level, not only in nursing, but also in other professions that have been less well paid up to now. Perhaps the problems with staff shortages would also be solved if salaries were simply better.

Would you change your job if you had the opportunity?

Yes, I would change my job and I will do it. This is primarily because I would like to try something else. I already realise that I don’t enjoy my job that much and the salary is another thing that makes me think; at the moment I’m still young and live alone, but one day I might have a family and I’ll need a bit more money for my children. On top of that, I don’t want to come home tired all the time when I have children and a family. The fact that my job, as already mentioned, is physically and mentally stressful is also a point why I would like to change my job.

What do you wish for your professional life in the future?

I wish that I get up and enjoy going to work; that my work is like a hobby for me; that I do my work with commitment; that I always want to go further; that I finally find what I really enjoy. I can already tell that I really enjoy psychology. My goal at the moment is to do further training and also a psychology degree. And who knows, maybe in a few years I will write another article with feedback on how it all went for me.

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