Should Older Nurses Retire Early?

Kathy Quan RN BSN PHN

Kathy Quan RN BSN PHN

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This is an age-old question and discussion. On one side, who wouldn’t want to retire early if they could? Travel, spend more time with grandchildren, garden, enjoy a hobby, live a leisure life sounds divine. On the other, knowledge, experience and wisdom are not easily replaced. Most nurses will tell you something akin to their desire to help people is at least part of the basis for why they sought to become nurses. That isn’t going to change despite disillusionment with nursing duties, or burnout, or even aging. Whether nurses should retire early is always going to be a personal decision and shouldn’t be one that’s decided by others except in dire situations. 

Certainly, as anyone ages, physical limitations set in. Nurses are no exception, and nursing is a very physically demanding profession. But there are plenty of niches for those who can no longer tolerate the strain of bedside nursing. There are workarounds for issues with declining memory and mental sharpness that don’t affect patient safety and outcomes. 

Average age of nurses is rising

The fact is that the average age of nurses is rising. According to the 2017 National Nursing Workforce Study, the average age of nurses is now 51. The 2020 study is underway and isn’t expected to see any decline in average age. There continues to be shortage of incoming younger nurses and even if they want to retire, older nurses feel an obligation to stay. Patients demand and require more care and education. With a focus on preventative care, the need for nurses continues to increase. The shortage of nurse educators is not being solved and over 50,000 applicants to nursing programs are turned away each year. 

The Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) were anticipated to begin retiring en masse as they began turning 65 in 2013, but the Great Recession of 2008 caused many nurses to rethink and restructure retirement plans. Consequently, older nurses may have reduced their hours and changed positions but did not retire. With looming financial strains due to COVID-19, retirement plans may be stalled once again. 

Drastic increased need for nurses

The novel coronavirus SARS2 COVID-19 has seen a drastic surge in the need for nurses, particularly nurses able to travel and meet the needs of surging cases as they have ridden a wave across the country. This too plays in the fact that older nurses are needed if only to help educate, preceptor, support and supplement while the younger and more healthy nurses work the frontlines. 

Hospitals on the other hand are losing money with so many COVID-19 patients being covered by government payments and CEOs are struggling to balance the books. One way is cutting staff. It seems to be the CEO’s first, last and always approach to saving money. Patient care suffers and nurses are getting sick as well as burning out faster than ever. In fact, the burnout is becoming an issue of nurses leaving the profession and not just needing a break or change of venue.

In less chaotic times, the subject of older nurses retiring earlier would be a saner discussion. But at the current moment, even broaching the conversation is not advisable. Yes, with hiring freezes and CEOs playing games to balance the shrinking budgets, there is a shortage of jobs for many new grads. This is obviously not a good place to be and very frustrating to new grads. But in reality, that isn’t a reason to encourage older nurses to hurry up and retire. 

There needs to be a mixing of generations to ensure the wisdom and experience gets handed off to the new grads. That takes time and effort and commitment to work together for the common good. That is a huge challenge in the chaos and high pressure fast-paced environment brought on by COVID-19. New grads do not leave nursing school knowing everything they need to know. In fact, it takes years of practice and experience what a seasoned nurse has learned. Yes, technology, treatments and nursing care evolve constantly. Nursing is a lifelong learning process. That is why continuing education for nurses is so important. New nurses can also help seasoned nurses to learn and understand the changes in care as well as seasoned nurses can assist new nurses to gain confidence and hone their skills. 

Mutual respect is a must

A whole lot of patience and commitment to make these improvements for all needs to take precedence. Mutual respect and a common goal of improving patient outcomes needs to be the focus. A commitment to working together is essential. If there aren’t enough older nurses left in the workplace to nurture and help new grads morph into excellent nurses, everyone will suffer. 

It’s time to revisit the movement that began in 2018 with a pledge to support new nurses and no longer “eat their young.“ There is no room in the profession for bullying and disrespect for any nurses, old or young. Nurses are here to help patients improve their outcomes and that is best served through working together. As nurses age, they will retire when they can. If there is an issue, nurses need to work towards an amicable solution together. It should not become an “us against them” situation in any way!

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