Genevieve "Jeni" Gipson has made a name for herself by speaking out for those who generally go unnoticed.
Twenty-eight years ago, the Norton, Ohio, resident formally started the Career Nurse Assistants Program Inc., the nation's first organization focused on the unsung workers who perform the nitty-gritty work of caring for a frail, often elderly person.
Gipson, a registered nurse who has a master's degree in education, has devoted her long career to issues related to nurse assistants, a term she prefers to use instead of the more common term of nurse aide.
Her achievements are many. Gipson has consulted in nursing homes in Beijing, China, testified at U.S. Senate Health Subcommittee meetings on nurse assistant issues, ran the Long Term Care Education Center formerly at the University of Akron for 17 years, and has conducted nurse assistant-training programs for the Ohio Department of Health.
At age 68, Gipson is still in the middle of her career. She gives speeches across the country -- she plans to speak at meetings in Nevada, Indiana and Florida and New York this spring -- and publishes widely.
All of her work is toward one goal: to make things better for nursing assistants, with the goal of improving care for those they help.
"I guess my philosophy early on is: If you want to have good care for the residents, you've got to take care of the people who are doing it," said Gipson, who began her work in the 1960s.
When it comes to salaries, nurse assistants are low on the health care rung, earning between $8 and $9.50 an hour, often with no benefits. At the same time, nurse assistants provide the majority of direct patient care, whether in a person's home, or in a long-term-care facility. In addition to feeding and bathing a frail patient, the nurse assistant is often the first person to notice a change in a patient's condition, experts say.
Currently, there are 2.5 million nurse assistants in the nation, Gipson said. Within two years, an additional 750,000 workers will be needed, she said. "We're already in crisis around the country," she said.
Gipson's organization now has a board of directors with members throughout the country. The program also gives 20-year service awards to nurse assistants, and publishes articles by nursing assistants.
"She's been an advocate for recognition, training and professionalism of nurse assistants," said Dr. Harvey Sterns, a psychologist who directs the Institute for Life-Span Development and Gerontology at the University of Akron and a longtime colleague of Gipson's.
Gipson also wants those she advocates for to have their own voice. The program's Web site -- www.cna-network.org -- offers nine message boards and list services for nursing assistants, which gives those in the field the chance to talk to others in similar situations.
"It gives us a voice to let us know what our brothers and sisters in the field are doing," said M.D. Garrett of Akron, a nursing assistant who works in both elder day care and at area nursing homes. "We also can communicate with newcomers in the field."
Garrett, 45, became a nurse's aide after a stint in the Army. He said he is also active in the organization's work group, formed to attract more males to the field.
Gipson said her interest in the needs of older adults started as a child who lived in a multigenerational home. She was awarded a scholarship to the University of Akron, where she majored in nursing. Gipson did a stint at the former Summit County Home for the indigent frail elderly, an experience that she said galvanized her to want to change conditions for both staff and patients.
Gipson's latest project, "NA Songs," will document the way nursing assistants, or nurse's aides, use singing to manage their frail clients.
Frequently, Gipson said, nurse assistants have to use their intuition about their work, because it's not easy to get a frail, often confused person to accomplish a task. Universally, nursing assistants sing or hum to help patients ease transitions, she said. With the help of assistants, including a songwriter, Gipson will gather stories from nursing assistants, trying to understand how they use their voices to soothe patients.
Gipson said a videotape of the nursing assistants will be produced, and their stories about how they use singing as a tool will be published in a book format, most likely, by a textbook publisher she has worked with previously.
Before the 1980s, Gipson said, there wasn't even a legal definition of a nursing assistant. "Back then, they didn't call them anything. They called them, 'Hey, girl,' " she said.