Are older nurses being forced out of the profession?

Originally published in HCPLive.com

by Colleen O’Leary, RN, MSN, AOCNS

Last time I talked about how I had never really experienced the concept of nurses eating their young in action.

However, I have seen the opposite begin to evolve. I see this as a bigger issue in nursing these days. The “putting out to pasture” of seasoned, experienced nurses is happening more often and for a variety of reasons.

First, and foremost, is simply the fact that the pool of nurses inevitably follows the general aging of the nation. As baby boomers who once filled the halls of healthcare institutions caring for others begins to age, they will certainly have a more difficult time meeting the demands of current healthcare. More and more institutions are requiring nurses to work longer and longer shifts, changing from an 8-hour day to a 12-hour day. This, along with the fact that patients in the inpatient settings have much higher acuity and a variety of complex issues, makes the demands on nurses even greater.

I know for myself that when I was working 12-hour shifts, I could only do two in a row. If I had to do the third one without a break, I was exhausted. I can only imagine how someone five, 10, or even 15 years older than me would feel. In fact, I remember one time when a new young nurse just starting out came to me and sheepishly asked, “What do you do when you go home after working a 12-hour shift?” He was finding that he was very tired and often unable to do anything but go home, have dinner, and go to bed. If someone that young has difficulty imagine how it is for the older nurse.

Not only are the hours and the complexity of patients difficult, but also the physical strain. Because patients have such high acuities, they often require turning, positioning, and moving that can cause stress on the nurse’s back, neck, arms, and legs. Injuries among nurses are much higher than even injuries among construction workers. Again, more stress and difficulty for the older nurse.

Another point to take into consideration is the advent of new technologies for diagnostics, assessment, and documentation. Often, when facilities start to change to electronic medical records, it’s the older nurses who have the most difficulty. The younger nurses grew up with advanced technology everywhere around them. I remember the first computer class I had to take in college taught us how to do keypunch machines. There were giant computers in a lab that you had to schedule time to use to do your work. Then you carried around a stack of cards with little computer generated holes punched in them, that when read, gave a story. Then many years later when I took a nutrition class and was told we had to do a computer program, I was terrified. I didn’t know how to use computer programs. How times have changed… But that’s the point. If you haven’t grown up with that being a part of your everyday life, it’s very difficult for some to catch on and take hold of new technology.

Finally, the recent change in the economy has put a different kind of strain on older nurses. Where they might have been thinking of retiring, they now find that they must remain in the workforce to survive. I’m just afraid of what is going to happen over the next couple years when the economy starts to rebound; people are feeling safer and we see a mass exodus of retiring nurses. I think it will be a time of extreme nursing shortage and we should start planning for it now.

But what makes nursing different than other professions that are facing an aging workforce, and what is it that really bothers me the most? It’s the concept of not just aging but of truly “putting out to pasture.” If an older nurse has not worked their way through the ranks and is still in the trenches of bedside or chairside nursing, how much support are they getting? Forget the concept of the seasoned nurses not nurturing and helping the newcomers.

As I’ve said, I have not seen that phenomena. But what I have seen is a sense of impatience towards the older nurse; an underlying feeling that they just can’t cut it and not a great sense of wanting to help them. Not only the impatience, but it’s almost a disdain for them. It’s as if they don’t highly regard the years of experience as valuable because the person might have a more difficult time with the newer techniques. I’m not sure how we got to this point. I’m sure it has something to do with the whole outlook that each of the generations have on work, socializing, and facing the world, but it is a bit disheartening to see around me. I have always learned to respect those with more experience and try to learn something from them. That doesn’t mean that I think that we should allow someone who cannot physically do the job stay in the job.

But I think we could, as a profession, hold up our experienced nurses and learn something from them instead of always thinking we need to teach them something.

Colleen O’Leary is a staff educator of medical oncology at Northwestern Memorial Hospital who blogs at Oncolog-e Nurse Talk.

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