Academic journal article Contemporary Nurse : a Journal for the Australian Nursing Profession

'Older People Have Lived Their Lives': First Year Nursing Students' Attitudes towards Older People

Academic journal article Contemporary Nurse : a Journal for the Australian Nursing Profession

'Older People Have Lived Their Lives': First Year Nursing Students' Attitudes towards Older People

Article excerpt


This paper outlines the results of survey research undertaken with commencing nursing students to determine their attitudes towards older people and the relationship between attitudes and the decision to work with older people, particularly in an aged care setting. It will explore the current career preferences of commencing nursing students and reasons for their preference; students' attitudes towards older people; and the attributes that the students associate with ageing. This data will be used to determine the extent to which a lack of interest in working with older people in aged care can be associated with stereotypes about ageing.

Australia currently faces a growing ageing population due to the ageing of the post World War II 'baby boom' generation and increasing life expectancies. Current projections suggest that 30.4% of the population will be aged over 60 by 2041 with the group of people aged over 85 increasing by over 10,000 per year until 2026 (Healthy Ageing Task Force 2000). Increasing life expectancies have been associated with higher levels of disability as people survive conditions which were previously fatal (Borowski & Hugo 1997). In 2003, 22% of all Australians aged 65 and over experienced a level of disability that hindered core activities such as walking and dressing, with the proportion of people experiencing severe disability increasing with age. Of people aged 65-69, 10% experienced severe disability, while 58% of people aged 85 years and over were identified as severely disabled (ABS 2005). Despite these figures, current estimates show that 80% of people over 70 do not use aged care services (Pearson et al. 2001). In 2003, only 5% of the population over 60 lived in aged care accommodation with the median age of residents being 85 years (ABS 2006).

Nurses and ageism

Despite, the ageing of the population, the proportion of nurses identifying their clinical specialty as geriatric/gerontology in Australia decreased by 8.7% between 1997 and 2001 (AIHW 2002). Nursing in aged care settings is viewed by nurses as being devalued by the community, other health professionals and by nursing (Wells et al. 2004). Recent studies (Abbey et al. 2006; Eley et al. 2007; Moskos & Martin 2005;Valencia et al. 2005) have found that aged care is viewed as lacking status, as being poorly funded, as understaffed, as having heavy workloads; and as requiring too much documentation. Respondents also highlight wage disparities with the acute care sector noting that pay rates are lower for nurses in aged care.

De la Rue (2003) associates the devaluing of aged care nursing with ageism. Ageism is a 'process of systematic stereotyping and discrimination against older people' (p. 8) and is associated with the belief that older people are 'disqualified by reason of their chronological age from making a full contribution to society' (Strazzari 2002: 239). Ageism is reflected in policies focussing upon the 'social burden' of ageing and in practices which disregard symptoms through association of these symptoms with the ageing process It also results in restrictions in treatment options, access to diagnostic tests and education about health conditions (Nussbaum et al. 2005; Strazzari 2002). Minichiello and Coulson (2005) argue that the dominant understanding of ageing in Western societies is one which views the ageing process as leading to increasing disability. Being older is associated with 'prolonged loss, poor health and dependency' (p xiii). Ageing is viewed as a biomedical problem enabling a focus upon rehabilitation over cure and custodial care over prevention (Gething et al. 2002; Koch & Webb 1996). Older people are treated as a group who have the same needs (essentialism), and who are seen as being separate from the mainstream (othering) and as belonging to another time (superannuating) (Minichiello et al. 2005: 28-29). Minichiello et al. (2005: 30) argue that these beliefs allow for the dehumanisation of older people making it easier to 'treat them with disrespect and devalue their experiences and desires. …

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