A forensic gerontology specialist is a forensic nurse who cares for older people who may have experienced assault, abuse, exploitation or neglect. As well as using your nursing skills, you’ll assist in identifying and investigating related crimes. The job has both healthcare and criminal justice responsibilities, so you'll work with patients and officials in other agencies, such as social services, legal and law enforcement. An estimated 2.1 million people in the U.S. are victims of elder abuse each year, but spotting issues in older adults is not always easy. Your job is to identify abuse, treat and support the victim and provide evidence that may help prosecute abusers.
Identifying and Treating Elder Abuse
Elder abuse and neglect can be hard to identify. Older people aren't always able to talk about their problems; they may be scared, confused or trying to protect their abusers. It is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between an abusive injury and one that is down to illness or the victim's age. In some cases, there may be no outward signs of abuse. You'll use your forensic training to recognize signs that there may be problems and to investigate them in a sensitive way. Using your nursing skills, you treat patients for any injuries and support them both physically and emotionally.
Gathering Forensic Evidence
As a forensic gerontology nurse, you'll identify, gather, document and report evidence of elder abuse as you treat your patients. You typically work within a broader multi-disciplinary network and, depending on each individual patient, could collaborate with police, social service agencies, victim advocate groups and lawyers. This is a key part of your job, as the evidence you collect may lead to prosecutions and it therefore needs to stand up in court.
Many forensic gerontology specialists work in hospitals or healthcare facilities, but you may find yourself working in other environments. Some nurses work in elder abuse or victim support centers; others work in nursing homes or retirement communities. Some larger coroner and medical examiner offices also employ forensic nurses and you could even work as part of a law enforcement agency, such as a police department. In some situations, you may work at crime scenes, helping to gather relevant evidence. Depending on your job, you may also visit patients at home or in nursing homes. In some criminal cases, you may have to testify in court as an expert witness.
Forensic Gerontology Training
You typically need to be an RN before you start training as a forensic gerontology specialist, although some programs are also open to other medical professionals such as paramedics, doctors, LVNs and LPNs. Some people study in college, either full or part-time; others take online courses. Typically, you'll train in general forensic nursing, learning about gerontology as part of your course, and you can choose between master's programs and shorter certification courses. After training, you may start working as a forensic nurse before specializing in gerontology or may work in this area immediately. There are no formal certification requirements in this area of nursing.
Skills and Experience
This hybrid role requires strong nursing experience and investigative skills. You need to have strong attention to detail and the ability to build relationships quickly with vulnerable people -- you often become their advocate, as well as their nurse. According to Annie Lewis-O’Connor, the professor of forensic nursing at Boston College, specialists need to be "sensitive" and must develop "excellent interpersonal skills, which are crucial to effectively communicate with victims of trauma."
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