With the first baby boomers turning 65 early next year, their generation is expected to strain healthcare resources for the next 20 years, leaving some concerned about the looming shortage of nurses to care for them.
According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, one million new and replacement nurses will be needed nationwide by 2018.
In Minnesota, the number of people 65 and older will increase by 40 percent in the next 10 years. And to help meet the expected need for new nurses statewide, 10 nursing schools in west central Minnesota want to focus more attention on the nursing shortage.
The West Central Initiative based in Fergus Falls is currently coordinating a project to intentionally focus nursing curriculums on geriatric care.
University of Minnesota Professor Christine Mueller, who oversees the project, said over the next 20 years most nurses will be caring for elderly patients.
But nursing faces a double whammy in the next decade. Not only will there be more elderly patients, but many nurses will retire, Aging Services of Minnesota President Gayle Kvenvold said.
"As we look out to the future we have some genuine concerns about where will our caregivers come from," Kvenvold said. "Will they be there in the numbers we need?"
Kvenvold said nurses often choose to work in a hospital or clinic rather than a nursing home largely because of the disparities in hourly wage.
"As of last year the gap in the hourly wage that was paid to a registered nurse in a hospital versus a nursing facility was about $10 an hour," she said. "That's a pretty sizeable gap."
The pay gap is partly due to the government setting the rates that nursing homes can charge patients.
And while nursing students are aware of the gap, that doesn't stop them from pursuing it as a profession.
Kylene Miosek, a nursing student at the technical college in Moorhead, said pay and benefits are important, but they're not the reason she chose to be a nurse.
"I'm a human being; I like money," Miosek said. "But it is not as big a factor for me. The larger factor for me is that I'm making a difference in someone's life."
Miosek said she likes the rush of the emergency room. She's also interested in working in neonatal intensive care.
Miosek works in a nursing home as a nursing assistant to help pay the bills and said the experience has changed her outlook on geriatric nursing.
"You do the job nobody else wants to do," Miosek said. "But at the same time, I have to remember this could be my mother or my grandmother, my father or my grandfather. Really it changes my attitude in an instant."
And according to some experts, early experience can have a big effect on the career path nurses choose.
Kathleen Twohy, chair of the nursing department at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph and St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., said caring for the elderly is often viewed as boring and repetitive work.
"It's not viewed as exciting and glamorous like ICU or emergency room or that kind of thing," Twohy said. "Students views of nursing are really usually what they get on television."
But Twohy said aging baby boomers will require much more than nursing home care and geriatric nursing skills will be in demand in clinics and hospitals as well.
Twohy heads a new program at St. Ben's that put's more emphasis on geriatric nursing - a goal that all 10 nursing schools in west central Minnesota are striving to achieve.
"The need for health care professionals who are competent at caring for older adults is really at a crisis point," said Christine Mueller, chair of the University of Minnesota Adult and Gerontological Health Cooperative. "Every nurse has to be competent caring for older adults because that's who they're going to be caring for given the demographics."
Jennifer Jacobson - a nursing instructor at Minnesota State Community and Technical College-Morehead - said the challenge isn't just giving nurses the technical skills to care for the elderly. It's also showing students that geriatric nursing can be a rewarding career.
"When you have a nurse who can combine the compassion, caring art, those things we can't touch and see and measure very well, with the skills to take care of a person, that's when we have a nurse who is really doing a fantastic job," Jacobson said. "And that's what our elders deserve."
Jacobson said heading off the impending geriatric nursing crisis will require more nursing instructors and more students with a commitment to caring for the elderly.