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How to become an aged care nurse

aged care nurse
Photo: How to become an aged care nurse
Looking to become an aged care nurse? There are a range of education pathways that lead into a variety of roles in aged care nursing.


Aged care nursing is an increasing area of demand in Australia as a result of the nation’s rapidly ageing population and escalating rates of dementia.

It’s a career path that’s not only rewarding but is also challenging, interesting and engaging, enabling health care workers to care for older people in a variety of settings, such as aged care residential facilities to district nursing as well as home and community care.

There are several education pathways that lead into a career in nursing in the aged care sector.

The first is to complete a TAFE or RTO qualification, usually a Certificate III or IV in aged care, that provides basic theory and practice content.  These certificates enable students to work in residential or community aged care settings as an assistant in nursing (AIN) which is also known as a personal care worker (PCW) and personal care attendant (PCA).
As this nursing workforce is unregulated in Australia, the course content, which includes a mix of theory and practice in the aged care setting, often significantly varies between different education providers and works similar to that of an apprenticeship model.

Courses often train students in how to look after an older person’s care needs, support people’s health and well-being, recognise healthy body systems in a health care context, and to also support people living with dementia.

Fran McInerney, a registered nurse and Professor of Dementia Studies and Education at the University of Tasmania’s Wicking Dementia Research and Education Centre, says personal care workers, personal care attendants and assistants in nursing are not nurses but deliver essential daily care to aged care residents, providing an estimated 70 per cent of the hands-on care for older people in aged care.

“There’s a little bit of interstate variation and the titles vary but the role is fairly much the same - that’s assisting people with various activities around quality of life, activities of daily living, nutrition and hydration, hygiene and mobility,” she says.

Another pathway is to become an enrolled nurse (EN).

Enrolled nurses are regulated under the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) and registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Board, and deliver more complex client care than personal care workers.

Enrolled nurses are educated at the Diploma of Nursing level through a board-approved program of study at either university, TAFE or RTOs.

The courses are designed to equip students with the theoretical knowledge and the practical skills required for their nursing career, and range from one year to 18 months and up to two years in duration depending on the education provider.

Content varies between education providers but courses usually cover areas such as wound management, legal and ethical parameters to nursing practice, analysing health information, applying first aid, implementing and monitoring infection control policy and procedures.

Courses can also include administering and monitoring intravenous medication, nursing care for clients with mental health conditions and chronic conditions, and contributing to client assessments and developing nursing care plans.

As part of the course, students are also required to complete clinical work placements.

Registered nurses (RNs) are another regulated health professional under AHPRA and registered with the Nursing Board.

To become a registered nurse, students must complete a three-year Bachelor of Nursing degree in the tertiary sector.

Registered nurses deliver direct client care and provide more complex care, and are also able to administer medications, supervise junior staff and lead care according to regulatory requirements in the aged care sector.

Bachelor of Nursing programs cover topics such as anatomy and physiology, effective communication, nursing practices, research in practice, medications and safe administration, law and ethics, mental health, child and family nursing, community nursing, aged care nursing and advanced clinical decision making.

As part of the practical components, students must complete a minimum of 800 hours of clinical placement under accreditation requirements.

Registered nurses can also pursue post degree qualifications including a Graduate Certificate, Graduate Diploma, Masters and Clinical Doctoral studies specialising in aged care to further hone their skills and expertise.

Registered nurses can undertake nurse practitioner studies in aged care which enables them to prescribe some medications and order investigations within their scope of practice and in consultation with the treating doctor.

Further education is also available in areas such as dementia care.

The Wicking Dementia Research and Education Centre launched Australia’s first degree in dementia care, the online Bachelor of Dementia Care, and it also offers the world’s first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) titled Understanding Dementia.

Professor McInerney says when it comes to pursuing a career in aged care, students should consider their educational background and what type of role they aspire to work in within the aged care setting.

“We find a lot of PCA, PCWs, AINs haven’t finished secondary school and so that puts them on a PCA, PCW and AIN path,” she says.

“If you’re an endorsed enrolled nurse, which is the baseline of preparation that you can administer quite a range of medications that are ordered, you can undertake more complex care for things like dressings and so on, and you can assume some more leadership roles in team leadership.

“Registered nurses are involved in oversight of other staff, evaluations, teaching other staff, more complex care planning, documentation and clinical but a managerial clinical role.

“There’s a lot of range and it’s really a matter of your propensity to study, your background education and whether you desire to assume more managerial and more complex roles,” she says.

“Many PCA, PCWs and AINs really relish being with older people across their daily needs and establishing those consistent relationships and making that day to day difference.”

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Karen Keast

Karen Keast is a freelance health journalist who writes news and feature articles for HealthTimes.

Karen regularly writes for some of Australia’s leading health news websites and magazines.  In a media career spanning 20 years, Karen has worked as a senior journalist in newspapers and television. She has covered the grind of daily news and worked as a politics reporter at countless state and federal elections.

Since venturing into freelance writing five years ago, Karen has found her niche in writing about the health sector for editors, businesses and corporations.

Karen has interviewed the heads of peak health organisations in Australia and overseas, and written hundreds of news and feature articles covering the dedicated work of health professionals who tread the corridors of hospitals and health services, universities, aged care facilities and practices, day in and day out.

Follow Karen Keast on Twitter @stylemywords