Nursing students unprepared for dementia care, professor says

Youth Dementia Awareness

The Youth Dementia Awareness Symposium, held from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, brought together caregivers, people living with dementia and researchers. (Isabelle Docto)

Ryerson’s nursing program must do more to teach students about geriatric care, says an assistant professor of the program.

The professor, Kristine Newman, teaches at Ryerson’s Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing. She said first-year students learn Gentle Persuasive Approaches (GPA) — a technique to help them care for elderly patients — but that the curriculum doesn’t make geriatric care a mandatory course.

While Ryerson’s nursing curriculum does offer a specific geriatric care course for fourth-year students, it’s an optional course. Newman said that she thinks it should be mandatory throughout the program.

“There needs to be increased standards and competencies that are integrated into [the] curriculum [and] that are [specific to geriatric care] … including dementia,” said Newman.

Newman is a proponent of raising awareness for dementia.  She hosted a Youth Dementia Awareness Symposium over the weekend to provide young people with a better understanding of the disorder and how to help loved ones manage it.

Dementia is a disorder that most commonly affects the elderly. It describes conditions that deteriorate brain functions like memory, recognition and personality. One of the most common types of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease.

Canada’s growing aging population means that more people are susceptible to the disorder. The Alzheimer Society of Canada states that 564,000 Canadians are currently living with dementia, and that it directly or indirectly affects 1.1 million Canadians.

Sejal Patel, a third-year nursing student, was at the symposium’s first event on Friday. She remembers learning the GPA technique, but said this training wasn’t enough to make her feel confident going out into the workforce.

“I haven’t worked with [people with dementia] since first year, and a lot of the materials that were taught, I didn’t really encounter in second year,” said Patel.

Patel remembers working with a patient living with dementia during her first-year nursing placement. She was helping an elderly resident eat breakfast one morning when the woman became suddenly frustrated and began screaming and making movements that indicated choking with her hands.

“I was really shocked … I didn’t know what to do,” Patel said. “So, I think that’s why it’s really important for students to be educated, or not even students, anybody working with people with dementia.”

In general, Newman said medical and nursing programs at other universities don’t have a main focus on geriatric care.

The University of Toronto’s nursing program, for example, touches on developmental needs of the elderly in first year. They have a specialized two-day course for students keen on delving into elderly care.

At McGill, geriatric medicine is also an elective.

According to Newman, many new nursing students are more interested in pediatrics. But, because of Canada’s aging population, most end up working with older adults.

The Youth Dementia Awareness Symposium was held in conjunction with World Alzheimer’s Month.

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