Caring for Older Adults

The way that our society views aging is quite remarkable. As a caregiver, it is important to acknowledge the changes that occur as part of the normal aging process and incorporate them into your practice of caring for older adults.

Most people long to maintain life but somehow try to avert the inevitable changes that come with the aging process. Some of the changes are anxiously anticipated, such as a first birthday or college graduation. Other changes are unwelcome, such as the appearance of the first few gray hairs or “age spots.” Being young has value in American culture, while evidence of aging is camouflaged with plastic surgery, anti-wrinkle products, and dyes that cover gray hair.

It is important for those who care for older adults to acknowledge that there are many positive aspects of aging. For example:

  • Older adults have managed to survive through trials they’ve experienced during their life and have adapted to various changes and obstacles.
  • After middle age, most people have a very clear sense of their own values, priorities, strengths, and weaknesses and have the capacity to use life experiences to their advantage.
  • At retirement, many older adults enjoy new freedoms to pursue hobbies and interests, to use their time to thoughtfully consider things they may never have had the time to consider before, and to reflect. They have new opportunities to choose how to use their time and energy and be purposeful with their actions.

Aging should be viewed as a normal, natural process that is meant to be embraced and celebrated! Being youthful is merely one step toward achieving a lifetime of memories. Accepting the changes that come with aging without fear or denial can be an amazing gift, and you can be part of sharing that gift through your own attitude, knowledge, and actions while you’re caring for older adults.

Profile of Older Adults

To better understand older adults, you should understand the senior population, which is defined as people who are 65 years of age and older. Who are older adults? What makes them different from younger adults? Are they really all that different? Do they perceive themselves to be different?

Being a “senior” tells others their chronological age, but it does not always correspond to how a person feels about themselves or their abilities. Although a person may be 80 years old, they may feel like they are 50. How an older adult feels may vary with the time of day or day of the week, planned activities, stressors, and even the company that they keep! Knowing a person’s age does not automatically provide insight into that person’s feelings, abilities, or preferences. When caring for older adults, you should always dig deeper to determine who a person truly is.

Numbers and Growth

Older adults are expected to make up about 22% of the U.S. population by 2040. According to the American Psychological Association, predictions say that by 2060 the number of older Americans will increase to 98 million. Further predictions say that one out of every four people who are 65 years old today will live to be at least 90. All healthcare workers need to be equipped and ready to care for this potentially fragile population. Changes in the older population include:

  • This group is becoming more and more racially and ethnically diverse.
  • The average life expectancy has increased over time.
  • The gender gap in life expectancy between men and women has narrowed.
  • Older adults are working into and beyond the usual retirement years.
  • The poverty rate for older adults has decreased to around 10%.

Challenges that you can expect to face include caring for individuals who are obese, experience wide economic disparity between population groups, are divorced, live alone, and may suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Predictions say that one out of every four people who are 65 years old today will live to be at least 90. All healthcare workers need to be equipped and ready to care for this potentially fragile population.

A Heavy Toll

While old age is usually something that most people would like to attain, from a psychological perspective the experience of aging can be challenging. Older age is associated with rest and relaxation, but there are other potential components as well, including chronic and debilitating disease, loss of independent function and sense of purpose, anticipation of one’s own suffering and death, and perhaps most significant, saying goodbye to friends and loved ones as they die.

The biological changes associated with aging affect all of the various body systems. These changes vary in degree from individual to individual. Your role is to recognize those changes that are expected as a normal part of the aging process and provide care that incorporates that knowledge into your practice.

There will be related celebrations and challenges that you will encounter in your professional practice related to the aging process. Your responsibility is to be aware of them and seek ways to provide the best care.


Stereotypes and myths may affect the medical treatment older individuals receive and the way caregivers approach and communicate with them. Clinical expertise is constantly evolving and continues to challenge many commonly held assumptions about changes that occur with aging and the most appropriate interventions.

It is important for you to know which conditions indicate a need for further assessment instead of assuming that the conditions and behaviors that you observe are simply the result of the aging process. Consult with the care team when your observation and intuition tells you that an assessment is necessary. Providing quality care means providing services in accordance with the written plan of care that addresses the highest level of physical, mental, and psychosocial well-being for everyone.

Jennifer Burks

Curriculum Designer, Relias

Jennifer W. Burks has over 25 years of clinical and teaching experience, and her areas of expertise are critical care and home health. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from The University of Virginia in 1993 and her Master of Science in Nursing from The University of North Carolina, Greensboro, in 1996. Her professional practice in education is guided by a philosophy borrowed from Florence Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing, “I do not pretend to teach her how, I ask her to teach herself, and for this purpose, I venture to give her some hints.”

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