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Insider's Guide for Certified Nursing Aides

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Insider's Guide for Certified Nursing Aides

Whitney Jackson


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As the population of the Baby Boomer generation grows, so does the need for long-term care professionals. If you’re a compassionate person who enjoys spending time with seniors, a certified nursing aide career could be right for you.

The pre-requisites for becoming a certified nursing aide are manageable. Prospective students need a high school diploma or equivalent to qualify for most programs, and are typically asked to take an assessment test that demonstrates basic reading and math skills.  A background check, medical exam and various vaccinations are required, depending on the state.

If you’re prepared to make this career move, read on for six ways to plan for a transition into the caregiving field.  Lisa Correa, a nursing instructor at California-based El Camino College, and Robert Benway, a former certified nursing aide, who now works in nursing aide education at National-Louis University in Chicago, provide insider tips that are certain to get you motivated.

Be proactive during the program application process. Instead of applying to a program online, which involves no human contact with school officials, Correa recommends visiting prospective schools in person to learn more about the various program options before you apply. This will help ensure you grasp the extent of the program and are able to tailor your application to the specific school.

Insider tip for application success: “I would make sure you express your own beliefs about what life events triggered your interest in becoming a nursing assistant; did you care for a family member, or did you witness someone else doing a particularly good or poor job of caring for someone close to you...,” Benway says.

Prepare before the first day of class.  Plan ahead, Correa says, because it’s a lot of learning in a short amount of time, and there’s no room to fall behind. Correa recommends new students make an appointment with a school counselor far in advance of the program start date.

There are some tasks, such as completing a background check, which can be taken care of ahead of time in order to alleviate stress during the first couple weeks of the program. Counselors should have hand-outs that walk students through everything they need to do in order to prepare for the program, Correa says. 

Insider tip for arriving prepared: “Don’t blow this off,” Correa says of meeting with a counselor before school starts. “Students who don’t do this walk into their first day of class and are blown away.”

Be aware of the duties involved with becoming a Certified Nursing Aide. Aides provide a variety of personal and nursing care to patients, including the following tasks:

  • Dressing, bathing, feeding
  • Toileting, catheter care
  • Taking vital signs
  • Assisting with ambulation
  • Making beds, changing bed linens
  • Turning bedridden patients every two hours to prevent bedsores
  • Providing updates on care plans to supervisors and families
  • Monitoring patient safety
  • Light housekeeping to maintain cleanliness in patient’s environment

If you’re not sure whether you’re cut out for the job, sign-up for some hands-on volunteer work at a hospital or skilled nursing facility.  This will have the added perk of boosting your résumé before you apply to schools.

Insider tip on life as a caregiver: “Don’t do it if you aren’t truly interested in helping people,” Benway says. “If you are interested and do pursue it, treat your patients as though they are your loved ones - doing so will bring success to you and them.”

Set aside time to focus on the program. Training involves both theory, or classroom work, and clinicals, the hands-on practice. Every state has established guidelines for training requirements and exams in order to become certified.  For example, the state of California requires a minimum of 150 hours of training to become a certified nursing aide, and Illinois requires 120 hours.

Community colleges, community service programs and even some hospitals provide training programs for certification. These can be intense, full-time programs that will last a couple months, or evening programs that are sometimes spread out over a longer period of time. 

 Insider tip on school success: “My advice is to be mentally prepared, organized and diligent about completing all the work required of you,” Benway says. “This is generally not a flunk-out sort of program. People who fail from this type of program do so because they don’t study and miss numerous classes.”

Apply early for financial aid. Program costs vary widely depending on the state and institution, but the typical price range for community colleges is between $900 and $3,000 for all training and materials. Correa says community college is a good option because it is cheaper than a private institution, but students are still required to meet the same state-wide standards before entering the field.

Students often miss out on opportunities for financial aid because they don’t explore financial options early enough, Correa says. It’s essential to get to campus before school starts to check into student loans and school scholarships.


Insider tip on financial aid: “If the student doesn’t have any money, there’s money out there,” Correa says. “They just have to apply for it.”

Research job opportunities ahead of graduation.  Many job opportunities are available to certified nursing aides following graduation. They often work for hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living communities or senior home care agencies.

“It’s pretty open because there’s a nursing shortage,” Correa says. “Most of my students who want to work can find a job right away.” Correa encourages students to get their home-health aide certification while they’re getting their certified nursing aide degree so they have more options following graduation.

Tip for staying inspired as a certified nursing aide: “The most rewarding thing about being a C.N.A. is helping patients lead more fulfilling lives, and providing quality of care for them,” Correa says. “I tell my students that I’ve been a nurse for over 25 years, and it was the best thing that I’ve ever done.”

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