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The Real Reason Why Older Nurses Don’t Retire

March 25, 2013
By Julianna Paradisi. All rights reserved.

Snow Tops/ by Julianna Paradisi

Julianna Paradisi, who blogs at JParadisi RN and elsewhere, works as an infusion nurse in outpatient oncology. Her artwork has appeared several times in AJN, and her essay, “The Wisdom of Nursery Rhymes,” was published in the February 2011 issue.

I hate to break this news to new graduate nurses struggling to find jobs, but the real reason that older nurses don’t retire isn’t—as you may have been led to believe—the struggling economy. The reason is that a large percentage of retirement-aged nurses enjoy working. As a middle-generation nurse, I’m coming to grips with this reality myself.

Many of my longtime colleagues are old enough to retire. When they do, they often retain on-call status. They never really go away. It’s weird to attend a retirement party for a coworker and then see her or him again the next day at work, helping out with a special project for their manager.

This trend among older nurses was also in evidence at a meeting I recently attended. Most of those present were nurse managers. Although a few were younger than me, most were older, sporting hipster eyeglass frames and sophisticated bob haircuts that left their natural silver.

These men and women are a testament to the profession’s development of strong, consistent leadership. Seated around the table, they suggested to me an image of Oregon’s snow-topped Cascade mountain range. And like a majestic mountain range, they represent a barrier for younger nurses desiring to take their places around that table.

Older nurses are not abandoning high acuity specialty units either. Age, once a factor in the decision to transfer into lower acuity units, is now offset by technologies that make staying easier. For example, monitors that record ICU patients’ vital signs directly into the electronic medical record save steps and energy. Smart pumps now calculate complex infusion drip rates. Hoyer lifts reduce back and muscle strain, previously a destroyer of many a nurse’s career longevity. If reimplemented, eight-hour shifts will further lengthen these careers. Also, Baby Boomers take better care of their health and receive better health care than past generations. These circumstances make it easier than ever before to delay retirement.

While younger nurses laugh at their older coworkers’ use of Zoolander-sized flip phones for text messaging (remember when we expected that cell phones would get smaller?), these older colleagues have been busy completing online master’s degrees during lunch breaks or at home while their families watch Downton Abbey. They take evening courses; earn doctorates of nursing, NP licensure, and FAAN status. Through networking, they move into leadership positions created especially by and for nurses: managers, navigators, discharge planners, and house supervisors. They’ve worked hard for these career accomplishments, and despite their advancing age, retirement is not yet a concern.

I’m not the only person observing this trend of older nurses staying in the workforce. According to this article, the vice president/CNO of Holy Family Memorial Hospital in Wisconsin reported in 2011 that the average age of the nursing staff at her hospital was 47, saying the following:

“A big piece is economic. But a lot of them love what they do. . . They’re saying ‘I don’t want to give everything up. I would just like not such a hectic pace, maybe work four-hour shifts. Maybe do education for patients or staff, different types of roles.’”

I used to joke about the nursing shortage forecasts, saying, “As long as I have a pulse and a stethoscope, I’ll have a job.” With the advances in nursing over the last two decades, perhaps this is more prophecy than jest.

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17 comments

  1. I am 74 years old,and still Nursing. When some one has Surg,or just need someone with them for a a day,or a week , I will do that.I just don’t want to give up nursing.
    I have been Camp Nurse for 27 summer at youth camp,going back this summer

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  2. I am 74 years old,and still Nursing. I will stay at the home for some one that needs someone for a few days,or a week past Surg.or otherthings.
    I just don’t want to give up Nursing,I love it. I have been Camp Nurse at a Youth Camp for 27 years,and will be going back this summer,

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  3. I enjoy seeing the accomplishments of my older colleagues, and am grateful for their ground breaking careers.

    I’m wondering how new grads are coping while competing for jobs with this older group of nurses?

    How are new grads managing student loans, and debt while looking for work?

    Are you disillusioned, waiting for the nursing shortage?

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  4. This reminds me of how lucky I am to be a nurse – to love what I do and have almost endless possibilities for growth. Great post!

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  5. I love, love, LOVE this post! Yippee for us “old” nurses. My dad always told me to do something for a career that I loved, and that helped me pay the rent. Nursing has suited me to a “t” for all these years and if I get bored, I’ve reinvented myself. Easily done in this career. Thanks JP!

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  6. As an older nurse that has not quite reached retirement and does not plan a complete retirement anytime soon, I am almost finished with my MSN Ed. Yes I did it on line as well as my BSN. My plan is to teach in a school of nursing or teach end-of life care to nurses already working perhaps in a hospital or hospital system but not working 5 days per week. I love nursing it is what I am and end-of-life care is my passion. I have much knowledge and would like to share it with others.

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  7. I will tell you how it is for us new grads. While yippee for all of you older generation nurses, some of us are really struggling to make ends meet. If we didn’t know someone or had our foot in the door somewhere before hand, we are getting screwed now. Those loans are being defaulted on and we are working at the checkout lines at Walmart, if we can even find work at all, instead of living our dreams. My mother is a 65 year old nurse who refuses to retire. But she is one who does not love her job. She just decide to squander her retirement and reenter the nurse force to pay her bills. And all those years I had to listen to her tell me the same thing…..as long as there are sick people, you will always have a job. Well I am living testament to the fact that, no I won’t. And I really wish schools would stop pushing that same load of crap just so they can continue to get paid. I spent almost 11 years in the army as a medic and a surgical assistant. Went to an Army post recently to apply for a nursing position figuring I would be a shoe in. Was told minimum of one year experience, no exceptions. Wow! After all the years I invested in training other how to do their in hospital jobs. Everyone from the doctors down to the secretaries, and NOTHING. All of a sudden no body wants to invest any time to train me. I have been told that I should volunteer to get some of said ‘experience’. Ironic, since I can promise that in that one year I would never even come close to my first year in the Army where I did EVERYONE’s job, which now counts for absolutely nothing! Oh, and not to mention that volunteering doesn’t exactly put food on the table or pay the bills, specifically those school loans we racked up. So I feel that I have exhausted all avenues, submitted all applications possible, and still I don’t hold out much hope for anything in this field anymore. Any suggestions from anyone out there? I am at my wit’s end! Just to mention, I don’t have a bad attitude when I show up to turn in resumes. This is simply my frustration, since the second poster on here was already questioning what it was like, in a purposely sarcastic tone. NOT COOL! Prime example of nurses “eating their own”. And it would do you well to remember, JParadisiRN, the generation that YOU will have to rely on to take care of YOU when YOU are no longer able. Guess too many of us newer nurses won’t be there or that. Too bad because you will be missing out on some excellent care from this nurse!

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  8. Thank you Heather, for your brave, heart felt comment. I was hoping someone such as yourself would speak up and express what I realize is the reality for new nurses. Yesterday, a colleague complained of not being able to move beyond their current role, because of older nurses holding their places at the table.
    I agree, you’ve been sold a bill of goods, which has not manifested for many of you. And that school debt looms.

    Blogging is about conversation, and sharing opinions. I’m sorry my comment came across as sarcastic; that was not my intent. The Internet is a bit tone deaf sometimes.

    Does anyone have helpful suggestions for new nurses looking for work?

    Are there resources for nursing students in need of school debt relief?

    How are nursing schools preparing students for this change in the forecast of the nursing shortage?

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  9. There is so much anger in you and I can understand some of it, but if you went into nursing just to always have a job which I do not think you meant you chose the wrong profession. Have you gone to an employment agency? They may be able to help you get a job with your current experience. Are you willing to take any job that comes up to gain some experience so you can move to the area you would like to work in. Would you consider a change o location to get some experience? As I said earlier I am not yet at retirement age but what I left out is that I may have to retire because I have some medical issues that make it impossible to provide patient care and may cause a problem even to go into teaching which is what I am now working toward. I am sure there are other nurses like me who will make room for the newer nurses coming up. My concern is that there will not be nurses who can care for me not just as a job but as a nurse. I hope you find a job out there and carry Florence Nightingale in your practice.

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  10. Re: new grads – until recently, I taught undergrad nursing at a university. Students found that while opportunities for new grads are very limited in urban areas and hospitals, especially high-demand units ICUs. there are openings in other settings, such as rural locations and long-term care. I advised students to think broadly about where they might seek employment, be willing to move or commute, and never give up.

    Re: older nurses – I just left an ICU position because the pace and the nature of the work were simply untenable. 12.5 hour shifts, missed breaks, many new staff that need extra education and mentoring, and – worst of all – broken systems that hamper nurses’ ability to provide care all drove me away. If there were opportunities for shorter shifts, special projects that use my advanced skills, and efforts to fix unwieldy systems that hinder safe practice, I would still be there.

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  11. To heather.I graduated in 1972.It was the same.We never hoped for a day shift position.We had long hours and at that time doctors were not policed as they are now.Some would scream at us and even hurl charts across the desk at the nurse for something another shift had done.I considered quiting and we all threatened to be a cashier.Like that is an easy job.LOL.I did some soulsearching and knew this was a pashion.No turning back.Battle the beast.

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  12. Heather…if you have a military background, I suggest you look at working at a VA Medical Center. They do their best to hire Veterans! Good luck!

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  13. i still believe after 47 years of being an r.n. now a n.p, that nursing is an art, a science, and most of all a calling if you are looking to make a very large salary this is not the business for most but if you want to work in an environment that is fullfilling be a nurse

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  14. I have really enjoyed this discussion. I have taught nursing for 38 years (and worked part-time in clinical nursing for 25 years of that time). Nursing workforce needs have ebbed and flowed over those years. No one is guaranteed a job, and the market is tight now. I counsel students about to graduate all the time about that search for their first job. 1–be flexible. A part time job may open doors to full time. There are jobs in rural settings and long term care. 2–your first job is just that, not your lifetime career. Get that first job, get experience and many more doors open up for you. 3–be willing to relocate. In our generation (“boomers”), moving across country for a job was not unusual. 4–while I hear the frustration and anger in Heather’s posting, you can’t let that seep into your job search. Many of us nurse educators try to provide students with a realistic view of the job market, many don’t really want to hear it, only to feel frustrated when the job search gets difficult. You have to keep looking, be willing to take a risk, and pursue all avenues–career centers, the VA, looking around the country. The jobs are out there.
    By the way–I am retiring–well, to part time teaching, that is. I wish all our new grads the best of luck.

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  15. 1962 was the beginning of my career in my chosen profession.
    I place a very high value on that “Golden Era ” and nursed on the East and West coasts and from Nova Scotia to Florida and New Orleans and places in between, in the ER, OR, RR and House Supervisor ; and more. My roles were all fulfilling and rich, I also grew within the career with my own effort. I am loaded with memories of people and events, and feel blessed! I’m happy to see that so many are ” keeping – on ” Bless you all !!!

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  16. Every company I have applied for is looking for nurses with experience. At list here in NY we have a shortage of jobs not nurses. I have applied for hospital, rehab, home care, correctional nursing and any other position I could think of. I put any schedule or day of the week and the salary part open. It is so frustrating, but hopefully someone will give me an opportunity. I have an associates and staring my bachelors in October. I speak Spanish which helped me land an interview, but no call back so far. The interest on my loan is accumulating, but I’m just hopeful that soon someone will invest their time on training me. I think you experienced nurses would be the ideal mentor when new nurses, get a job. I don’t want to get stuck with someone who hates this beautiful profession. Some of you might be the ones doing the hiring or have a say in it. Don’t reject someone for not having experience, remember that everyone has to start from zero.

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  17. @Jennifer- I feel your frustration. Job choices are slim for new grads at this time, but not non-existent. Good idea to towards your BSN. While there are no sure-fire fixes, here are a few suggestions:

    After submitting an application, make a follow up call to the Human Resources Department, inquiring about its status. I actually had one get misplaced (also during a tight job market). Because I followed up, I landed an interview, and the job. I actually said to the HR contact, “I know if the manager meets me, she’ll love me.” It worked.

    Emphasize on an application or in an interview experiences from your life which bring a unique touch to your nursing, such as your ability to speak Spanish. Have you cared for an ailing family member, which influenced your choice to go into nursing, for instance? Have you had the opportunity to witness excellence in nursing make a significant impact for a patient or family member? Bring it up.

    Join Linkedin, and indicate a specialty area of nursing. It sounds crazy, but many local opportunities pop up through this social media site.

    Be open to working on-call maybe for a couple of hospitals. I did this while transitioning into adult oncology from PICU. The trend for many units is to hire staff from on-call personnel. It allows the team to see if you’re a good fit.

    Good luck!

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