Peggy Burhenn, MS, RN, CNS, Peggy Burhenn, MS, RN, CNS, AOCNS, the winner of the GLA Oncology Society’s Advanced Certified Nurse of the Year Award, discusses working with older oncology patients.Peggy Burhenn, RN
Q: What’s your approach to teaching other clinicians the best way to care for geriatric oncology patients?
I use an online program from NICHE — Nurses Improving Care for Healthsystem Elders. What we work on is applying that knowledge and what that means in the cancer population. It’s a good basis for understanding the care of older adults. I try to have a nurse on every unit who has had this advanced training in geriatrics and then can share that knowledge with others on the unit.
Q: What are the special needs of older adults typically not addressed by most healthcare workers?
We don’t systematically assess the older adult. Sometimes people may make a blanket assumption that age dictates ability to tolerate treatment, but that’s not always the case. We need to individualize care for older adults. Individuals don’t undergo physiological changes at the same rate, so one 75-year-old is not the same as another. What we use in geriatrics is called the Comprehensive Geriatric Assessment to determine who is the fit 75-year-old and who is the frail 75-year-old, and where does our care need to go from there.
Q: Can you share some of your insights into geriatric oncology care?
Sixty percent of cancer occurs in those who are 65 and older, so by default oncology nurses are gerontology nurses as we are mostly dealing with older adults, yet we have little preparation that is specific to geriatrics. My hope is that geriatric oncology will have special focus in most institutions in the same way that pediatric oncology does.
I’ve been teaching a Geriatric Resource Interdisciplinary Team course. I think it really opens people’s eyes. They think, ‘Wow, older patients are different and there are different approaches I can do to work with them.’ It’s been rewarding because I’ve seen a lot of nurses have ‘aha’ moments. People wonder whether or not education changes practice. I’ve seen it firsthand because it changes people’s perspective on how they practice. This is the first thing that has to happen to change your practice.
Stefanie Dell’Aringa is a freelance writer.