Elder care skills (and training) are vital at cancer hospitals

March 4, 2015 | by Darrin Joy

Bustling from room to room, bed to bed, patient care assistants are among those health care workers most intimately involved in the daily care of patients. They work closely with nurses by preparing rooms, bathing patients, assisting with skin care and providing other essential living needs. They also perform medically oriented work, such as obtaining specimens and checking vital signs.

geriatric training course Gloria Vazquez-Amadeo proudly displays the button she earned after graduating from a geriatric training course for patient care assistants.

With patient care assistants so closely involved with patients’ day-to-day lives during treatment, it's vital that they have the right skills to meet patients’ needs, especially as it relates to elder care. Because cancer is primarily a disease of the elderly, cancer patients are likely to be older adults.

The need for elder care skills will only grow. The overall U.S. population is aging, and projections show a 67 percent increase in cancer incidence by 2030 for people over 65. Further, many younger cancer patients develop symptoms and treatment side effects that can mimic conditions that older patients experience.

To help ensure that City of Hope is ready to meet cancer patients’ specialized needs, a group of personal care assistants recently undertook a special geriatric training program offered by the Department of Professional Practice and Education. The course included 16 hours of online work followed by two hours of classroom work per month for five months, providing participants with in-depth, interactive training in important skills needed to ensure the highest quality care.

Peggy Burhenn, M.S., C.N.S., A.O.C.N.S., professional practice leader and clinical nurse specialist in the department, spearheaded the effort. The program is similar to the Geriatric Resource Nurse curriculum that Burhenn developed with guidance from Arti Hurria, M.D., director of the Cancer and Aging Research Program, and NICHE (Nurses Improving Care for Healthsystem Elders), a nonprofit organization focused on improving care for older adults.

“We saw value in extending this training to others directly involved in patient care and created a course specifically for PCAs,” Burhenn said.

During the program, the patient care assistants learned how to effectively communicate with aging patients and how to address concerns arising from diminished hearing, eye sight and other senses. They also received guidance in how to work with older adults with age-related and therapy-related cognitive challenges including dementia, depression and delirium.

Gloria Vazquez-Amadeo, patient care assistant I, found the course to be exceptionally valuable. “You don’t find programs like this at many hospitals,” she said during the group’s graduation on Feb. 12. “I think it should be offered to as many PCAs as possible.”

Vazquez-Amadeo’s colleague, Xiomara Ponce, patient care assistant I, concurred, noting that even younger patients can exhibit geriatric traits. “Some may be older and have difficulty due to their age, but some may be younger and affected by medicines or brain metastases,” she explained. “This course helps us address patients in the way they want and need.”

Based on participants’ enthusiastic response to the course, Burhenn plans to offer another course for PCAs next year.


Learn more about becoming a patient or getting a second opinion at City of Hope by visiting our website or by calling 800-826-HOPE (4673). You may also request a new patient appointment online. City of Hope staff will explain what's required for a consult at City of Hope and help you determine, before you come in, whether or not your insurance will pay for the appointment.

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