An excellent entry to the exciting and growing nursing field is to become a certified nursing assistant or CNA. Nursing assistants play a very important role in our healthcare system as they provide critical, needed care for residents of long term care facilities, hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living centers.
Some experts believe that CNAs will be caring for 73% more retirees by 2029, so this is a strong growth field for those who are dedicated to nursing and helping others. You can become a CNA usually in 1-2 semesters at most community colleges and vocational schools around the US.
A CNA is responsible for most of the basic care for the elderly who need frequent assistance with their activities of daily living. The most common duties that CNAs handle for their patients include these:
- Helping patients and residents to clean and bathe themselves
- Helping them to dress themselves and to use the toilet
- Turning and repositioning patients as they need to go between bed, chair, wheelchair and other areas
- Keep track of the vital signs of each patient, including their blood pressure and body temperature
- Serving meals and providing assistance with eating
- Help patients get the medications they need and to help them take them
CNAs are usually the primary caregivers in many facilities where they work. They will have the most frequent contact with patients and residents than doctors and most nurses. You may develop a closer relationship with some of your patients as they will stay there for many months or even years.
Given the personal and intimate nature of this type of nursing care, being a CNA will take someone with certain qualities to be a CNA. Being a nursing assistant is not for everyone, but if you have the traits that we describe below, you may find it to be a very rewarding profession.
And if you enjoy being a CNA, you would likely enjoy becoming a full registered nurse in the future. You may decide to leverage your CNA skills eventually into an RN position after you earn your associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
Nothing is more important in the CNA field than having patients. You are having to help people with routine living tasks, and sometimes those people will have trouble doing them on their own. You have to be very patient in working with your patients every day on all of their tasks: eating, going to the restroom, dressing, bathing and much more.
The health care system is growing and changing every day. And every one of those days will bring many different and new challenges for the CNA. You could easily be working with eight patients one day, and then have to work with 10 new ones the next day. Over a few hours you may have to:
- Change bedding
- Take blood pressure
- Serve meals and help feed patients
- Write up patient intake forms
It is rare that any two days as a CNA will be the same. Some people are good at adapting to this type of ever changing environment, and others find it difficult.
#3 Strong Work Ethic
As we noted earlier, CNAs are seeing high demand; the US government reports through the Department of Labor that the CNA field will see 18% growth by 2024.
This is outstanding for CNAs who love to work and who like the chance to switch from one job to another if they like.
But because the patient population is growing older and more numerous, it is likely that you will sometimes be faced with too many patients to handle. There is often high turnover in the CNA field, so you must be able to work hard and keep your head high for more.
Working 12 hour shifts – sometimes four in a row some weeks – can be very tiring. You can expect to be very busy as a CNA, and a strong work ethic is a must.
#5 Compassion and Empathy
Your day consists of dealing with older people who often are in some amount of discomfort and pain. It is natural that you will need to be very compassionate about what they are experiencing.
In some cases, your patients may not even be very nice to you because they are hurting. Nonetheless, you must maintain a caring and empathetic manner. Know that your compassion and kindness often make as much of a difference on the person as taking care of their actual physical needs.
#6 High Attention to Detail
Really. It is fashionable to say that every job requires high attention to detail. But in a job where you are providing up to 90% of direct patient care, paying attention to small details can be the difference between life and death.
CNAs regularly deal with patient forms and charts that have many pages of vital details about the patient. These are people with complex medical histories and are usually on several medications. Everything must be charted and recorded precisely regarding every condition, drug, dose and task done.
Also, there are other attention to detail points that you have to be on top of. If one of your patients is always well dressed and suddenly is looking more sloppy, this could be a warning sign of a changing medical condition. How long did it take you to notice it? Having the ability to catch small changes in behavior, dress or manner can be extremely important in keeping your patients healthy.
#7 Great Sense of Humor
When you are dealing with people with declining health and sometimes terminal illnesses, sometimes the best way to deal with it is to have a sense of humor. In fact, virtually all health care professionals with any experience say it is essential to maintain a sense of humor in often upsetting and stressful situations at work.
Also, it is important to show patients that you have a sense of humor and that you can use it in your work. Did you know that encouraging patients to laugh can actually help them to reduce stress and even improve the immune system?
Your positive attitude can help to keep them looking on the bright side of things.
#8 Great Communication Skills
The job of nursing assistant is not for someone who does not like to talk to people. In your day, you must communicate effectively with doctors, nurses, patients, patients’ families and others. You might have to talk slowly with a patient or family and use medical terminology.
With a doctor, you have to be able to communicate a summary of the patient’s condition fast, as most doctors only have a few minutes with each patient every shift.
You also must be able to listen effectively and to relate any important information about the patient to doctors and nurses. Being a good listener is also important with the elderly, as you may be the person they see the most every day. They may want to talk about what they are going through. You need to be a good listener.
#9 Physical Strength
You might not think that you need to be strong to simply be on your feet for a 12 hour shift. But you really do need to have strong legs and feet to do that day after day. It will take some training and getting accustomed to, for sure.
You also have to have upper body strength to lift your patients out of chairs and beds, and to move heavy equipment around. Most CNAs find that being physically fit is very helpful in doing this job week in and week out.
#10 Tech Skills
Digital health care records, mobile diagnostic tools and other types of technology are transforming how patients are cared for throughout the healthcare system. A CNA should be able to keep abreast of all of the latest technology tools that are being used in the health care workplace.
There also are new medical devices and tools that can help to make patients’ tasks much easier each day. For example, there are stabilizing devices that are available that can help a patient to keep a fork steady as they are eating; this is very useful for patients who have Parkinson’s disease.
There also are apps available that you can use to track a patient’s physical activity level and what they are eating. Knowing how to use these tools well in your daily work will make you a better CNA and a good candidate for advancement as jobs open up.
#11 Tolerance for Many Tasks
When you are responsible for caring for patients’ intimate daily living needs, you may need to do things in a day that could make some people uncomfortable, but not you.
You will need to change bed pans, clean them, change linens, clean up bodily fluids, take urine and stool samples, and other tasks involving bodily functions. The CNA field is not for the person who has any difficulty doing these types of tasks on every shift.