I was deeply saddened to recently learn of the April 12, 2003 death of Irene Burnside, at age 79, from complications of chronic lymphatic leukemia. So, in lieu of an editorial this month, I wanted to pay tribute to Dr. Burnside in the Journal. I had long admired Irene's personal and professional courage and commitment to improved care of mentally ill older adults. Like many of our readers, I first became "acquainted" with Dr. Burnside's work in the late 1970's when I read her text, Psychosocial Nursing Care of the Aged (1973). This was one of seven books she authored, and had revised in recent years, despite her illness.
I was fortunate to be able to know Irene on a much more personal level than just her writings. In early 1993, while teaching a doctoral level course in Geriatric Mental Health Research at the University of Iowa College of Nursing, I came across an announcement from the VA Medical Center in Knoxville, Iowa, indicating that Dr. Irene Burnside would be presenting an all-day workshop on "Group Work with Older Persons" that spring. So the next time class convened, I announced that instead of our regular class session, I wanted students to attend Dr. Burnside's workshop, and I would make the necessary transportation and financial arrangements. To my surprise, virtually all the gerontological doctoral students, responded, "Who's Irene Burnside?" In addition to being stunned that these future gero nurse leaders were unaware of her pioneering work, I was also highly motivated to correct the situation, both for my students at Iowa and for gerontological nurses elsewhere.
So I called Irene, who was living in El Cajon, CA at the time, and still actively consulting, teaching, and presenting. I inquired if anyone had conducted an oral history of her life, and when she indicated "no," I broached the idea of one of my doctoral students working with me to accomplish what I viewed as an important contribution. Thankfully, Irene agreed to cooperate. Thus, it came to pass that geropsychiatric nursing doctoral student Linda Garand (who did the lion's share of the work and who is currently on the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing) and I set out to chronicle Irene's amazing life and contributions. With the help of historiographer Dr. M. Patricia Donahue and others at Iowa, we crafted a set of questions that were used to interview Irene.
When the date for the Knoxville workshop arrived, Linda and I arranged to go down a day early to meet with Irene face-to-face and to stay in the same bed-and-breakfast. As it turns out, much of the ensuing chapter, "The Psychosocial Care of Older Persons: The Pioneering Work of Dr. Irene Burnside" (1996) evolved over conversations in a hot tub! The next day I had arranged for Irene to visit the College of Nursing at Iowa to meet with our Gerontological Steering Committee, the Dean, and individual faculty and graduate students regarding program development in gerontological nursing. As always, her insights were invaluable and her manner, gracious.
Following another face-to-face interview at the GSA meeting, Linda and I were able to finalize content of the "history" by sending various drafts of the article back and forth until Irene approved of the content. Linda and I both stayed in touch with Irene over the years, and we treasure her hand-written notes and cards.
What we wrote more than 8 years ago, provides a fitting tribute to Dr. Burnside today. We noted that Irene:
was a true leader in geropsychiatric nursing over the past 50 years and into the present. Dr. Burnside is a nurse, philosopher, and scholar who began advocating for psychosocial care of older individuals at a time when many older adults in our society were residents in convalescent hospitals and asylums and received, at best, only custodial care. The humanity, vision, imagination, and personal commitment she has devoted to the psychosocial care of older individuals as her career evolved has helped set the stage for the recognition of geropsychiatric nursing as a respected and much needed subspecialty in psychiatric nursing (Garand & Buckwalter, 1996, pp. 213-214).
Irene will be remembered as a pioneer in nursing both in the United States and internationally (especially Australia and Scandinavia). Foremost, perhaps, will be her leadership of nurses conducting therapeutic group work with older individuals. But Irene was a remarkable woman in so many other ways. Tenacity is one especially notable attribute. Determined to pursue her lifelong interest in reminiscence, she began work (summers only) on her PhD in gerontological nursing in 1982 at the University of Texas at Austin. In 1985, Irene was diagnosed with cancer, and took some time off from teaching and doctoral studies to pursue treatment. Eventually, she was well enough to resume her education on a full-time basis. At the age of 67, when most people are retired, or certainly "slowing down," Dr. Burnside received her PhD in 1990.
For her lifetime of accomplishments, Irene received numerous honors, including, for example, the ANA Gerontological Nurse of the Year award (1990); the First Long-Term Care award from the NLN (1981); two AJN "Book of the Year" awards; and being named to fellowship in the American Academy of Nursing, the American Society on Aging, and the Gerontological Society of America. To Irene, however, the greatest reward of her long and distinguished career was, "...I was given the privilege of being with people at the most private and personal times of their lives" (I.M. Burnside, personal communication, November 22, 1993).
I will always be indebted to Irene Burnside as a role model and colleague. Despite a difficult childhood, she was a warm and determined woman who was generous with her time, money, and praise of others, but humble when it came to her own many achievements. I feel blessed to have known her.
I have asked Dr. Judith Hertz, whose personal and professional life was also impacted by Dr. Burnside, to provide some additional reflections for readers of JGN.
My tribute to Irene is written from my perspective of learning to know and love her in her roles as classmate, mentor, friend, and a unique human being. While I was shocked to learn of her passing in the spring of this year, I cannot help but feel that the world is certainly a better place because she lived here.
I "met" Irene in 1976 when, as a diploma-educated RN, I took my first clinical course toward earning a BSN at the University of San Diego. I had the good fortune of practicing in an adult day care center. During that experience, one of my projects was to lead a reminiscence group with the older adult clients. Irene guided me in conducting this session via her publications (Burnside, 1969, 1970). Several years later, I was delighted to meet this down-to-earth woman, nursing leader, and person whose writing I so admired, at the 1983 Sigma Theta Tau Convention in Boston. Little did I know that we would be classmates during our doctoral studies at The University of Texas at Austin.
In the summer of 1988, we resided in the same Austin apartment complex. Our efficiency apartments were clean and economical, but not luxurious! Irene transformed her sparse living environment into a homey atmosphere that was color coordinated and decorated with art obtained cheaply at a white elephant fundraiser. She even converted the walk-in closet into a bedroom; I was in awe of her abilities as an interior decorator! I also believe Irene loved being in the student role.
What I will always remember of those student days is sharing a good cup of coffee at the local coffee shop, enjoying meals together, and laughing until the tears flowed from our eyes. Her tales of dorm life (she lived in a dorm when she began her dolorai studies!) and her jokes about aging were priceless. What I admired and sometimes envied about Irene as a student was her organization - she never pulled an "all-nighter." However, she participated in all sorts of students' activities from attending graduate student barbeques to taking camping trips and going to concerts with friends. Although I heard more than one fellow classmate comment that they could not believe they were taking classes with "The Irene Burnside," Irene never boasted about her accomplishments, but rather, shared her expertise when asked and nurtured others. My classmates and I can savor the memories of our student experiences with Irene.
Irene with Drs. Judith Hertz, her mentee, and LaVerne Gallman, her mentor, after receiving the 1991 Sigma Theta Tau International Founder's Award for Creativity.
Irene was most definitely a nurturer and mentor. She always had time to listen to ideas offered by neophytes in the field of gerontological nursing. Frequently, she incorporated those "new" ideas and cited them in her manuscripts, presentations, and keynote speeches. One reason she gave for citing this developing work was to "get your name out" to others in gerontology. Also, Irene often consulted with students (both her classmates and those from other schools) without charging, recommended paths to enhance personal and professional development, and created opportunities for others. For example, she invited me to co-author a manuscript, referred a video producer to me for consultation, and even ensured that the Sigma Thêta Tau International grant I was selected to receive would have her name attached to it. I know Irene mentored others in ways similar to these.
As a friend and unique human being, I learned that Irene and I shared similar interests. We both liked a good cup of coffee and time spent with family and friends; recognized the importance of affiliating with "quality" individuals (i.e., those who helped not hindered); attended San Diego Padre baseball games alone and avidly rooted for this underdog team; and enjoyed a good, hearty, therapeutic laugh. "Giving" is a word that describes Irene's personality and life. For example, she gave her apartment and car to Barbara Raudonis (another classmate) and me when she went to Australia for 6 months following completion of her doctorate, created private time for others as well as time for socializing during extended visits, wrote special notes and letters that will be forever treasured, and prepared special gifts for others during special visits (e.g., going to lunch, stopping by her condo for a visit). What I most admired about Irene as a person and friend was her pleasure in the small things of life, her ability to really "dress up" when wearing a pair of jeans, her devotion to her family and grandchildren including taking them on trips, her creativity in scholarly work and in everyday life, and her positive outlook on life and ability to make the most of the good times. I will not forget our last conversation early this year, when she shared some of her difficulties in coping with her illness and its treatment. She also talked about fishing for trout with her son when her symptoms were controlled and enjoying the view from her window at sunset during a bus trip to Death Valley.
While I miss knowing that I can phone Irene or see her when visiting southern California, I feel so fortunate to have known Irene. Many times since learning of her passing, I have looked up into the sky and said, "Goodnight, Irene," just as she wrote in one of her final papers (Burnside, I.R.M., 2003). Indeed, all of us in gerontological nursing can thank Irene for her personal and professional contributions.
- Burnside, I.M. (1969). Group work among the aged. Nursing Outlook, 17(6), 68-72.
- Burnside, I.M. (1970). Clocks and calendars. American Journal of Nursing, 70(1), 117-119.
- Burnside, I.M. (1970). Psychosocial nursing care of the aged. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
- Burnside, I.R.M. (2003, April 25). Irene R. Mortenson Burnside (I.R.M. Burnside). Retrieved August 19, 2003 from: http://obituaries.signonsandiego.com/vic w-class.php ?id=5982ßct=c
- Garand, L.J., Sc Buckwalter, K.C. (1996). The psychosocial care of older persons: The pioneering work of Dr. Irene Burnside. In E.A. Swanson, & T. Tripp-Reimer (Eds.), Advances in gerontological nursing: Issues for the 21st century (pp. 213-236). New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.