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Geriatrics Isn’t Old, but Your Perspective May Be: Surprising Truths about Working with Seniors

  • Apr 11, 2023
  • Meaghan Puglisi
  • 6-min Read

There’s this misconception that working with seniors isn’t exciting, it’s ‘old.’ It carries with it outdated imagery of what aging is like. How can you impact a person’s life when they are 80, 90, or older? Working with younger ‘patients’ seemingly provides greater opportunity to be part of changing their health trajectory, making a difference, and having a life-long impact. 

Adding to this indoctrination is a belief that innovation in health care lies with the young. It’s that exact perception we are breaking. “Caring for seniors is very different from any other specialty,” shared Dr. Bill Thomas, world-renowned geriatrician, and Lifespark Independence Officer. “It requires three things: head, hands, and heart.”

The truth is, there is incredible innovation happening in the field of senior services that will leave you feeling you have made a significant impact in changing someone’s view on how they are capable of aging. There is this misnomer that as we age, we can’t do things – we have to stop painting, driving, or taking a ride down the waterslide or worse, accepting death because no one is listening. But it’s the people who work with seniors who have a direct influence on how someone lives and whether that is filled with sickness or magnificence.

We get into those surprising truths in our recent episode of The COMPLETE Shift, Lifespark’s podcast, with Joel Theisen, Lifespark CEO, and Dr. Bill Thomas. As a nurse and physician in the field of senior health, they bring to the conversation amazing and unexpected sides of what makes this work worth doing. Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that we haven’t done a good enough job highlighting why this field, or specialty, is so rewarding.

“We need to shift our mindset that working with elders is about the future,” said Dr. Bill. “It’s about creating this magnificent experience for a person. I think when people understand that they kind of beat down the door to come and join the profession and it changes their own perspective about themselves as health care professionals, and within their own life.”

Joel and Dr. Bill believe working with seniors is one of the most sacred parts of their careers. Many share this same sentiment – they understand the value, but the health care system hasn’t rewarded them for the work they do. In many ways, they’ve made it more challenging for people to seek this career and stay in it. In this podcast, Joel and Dr. Bill challenge why — is it the vocation of working with seniors or health care in general? They take their hand at addressing why so many are leaving the profession.

Ageism and Its Unintended Consequences

“Unfortunately, ageism, has led people to believe that older people have no future. And that is terrifyingly wrong,” shared Dr. Bill. “The fact is, when you’re working with older people, the future, their future, matters a lot.”

It’s a provocative statement. Could our unintended biases about working with seniors prevent so many from going into this profession? As Joel shares in the podcast, we have pediatric hospitals and surgeons, primary care with a focus on wellness for middle aged adults with different specialties – really forward-thinking innovation around better health outcomes. But senior care hasn’t advanced. “We haven’t valued the work economically,” explained Dr. Bill.

There’s more money in caring for people in other disciplines. “We tend to pay people more when they have fancy technology used to do the curing,” explained Dr. Bill. “All of that is fine but when you’re bringing your heart to work, laying a gentle hand on someone’s shoulder, and using your head to serve them, we tend not to pay money for that and that’s a crime.” Dr. Bill added, “what’s amazing to me is what those in our profession do without all of that – using these three things can do more to lower cost, improve experience for both the senior and the employee, and improve the health of the senior population.  

Call to Serve – Sacredness of Working with Seniors

While the population of seniors is growing at a rapid rate – one in four Minnesotans will be age 65 or older by 2030 – the workforce of those caring for them is becoming increasing low to the point of risking seniors’ health. Unlike other specialties, senior care has been hit hard. It’s an issue that organizations like LeadingAge MN and Care Providers in Minnesota are heavily invested in, advocating at the state level for higher wages and attention to this issue.

Perhaps people leaving the profession is a good thing – it means there’s something missing and it’s forcing us all to change. Florence Nightingale once said, ‘were there none who were discontented with what they have, the world would never reach anything better.’ We have a health care workforce out there hungry for bringing humanity back into their profession — something different, a raft of opportunity, impact, and wisdom gained. The reality is caring for our seniors is quite possibly the most human thing we can do.

For those contemplating this vocation we want you to know that geriatrics or senior care is not ‘old.’ In fact, as Joel said, “it’s wide open for innovation.” And as Dr. Bill noted, we have to do better to inspire others about seeking this vocation and answering the call to serve, we need them.

Listen to our podcast to hear more surprising truths about working with seniors and subscribe to The COMPLETE Shift so you don’t miss out on the next one. And if you’re ready – we’re hiring.

Joel Theisen, BSN, RN, is CEO and founder of Lifespark a complete senior health company based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Dr. Bill Thomas is best known for his health care system innovations. He is the founder of a global non-profit (The Eden Alternative) which works to improve the care provided to older people. He is the creator of The Green House(R) which Provider Magazine has called the “pinnacle of culture change.” Dr. Thomas also developed the Senior ER model of care and is now working to transform the acute care services provided to elders.

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