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.