Nurses Are Talking About the Real Reasons They Postpone Retirement

Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS


May 07, 2015

In This Article

Out to Pasture

People often bemoan the "brain drain" that is expected to follow the mass retirement of the baby boomer nurses. The literature is replete with articles about finding ways to capture the wisdom and expertise of older nurses, and making concessions to retain them in the workforce as long as possible.[1,2,3,4,5,6]

Sadly, however, many older nurses have found that this to be more lip service than reality, and unfair in the bargain. As one nurse explained, "I sense a growing sentiment that some would like us older nurses to go away. I will be 54 next month and have been a nurse for 22 years. I do not feel like I have slowed down at all. In fact, I feel like I have more energy than I did when I was raising my children. The maturity and life experience that older nurses bring to the profession are incredible assets. I hoped to work until age 65 to be eligible for Medicare, but I am beginning to feel that the powers that be would like me to fade away. Am I just imagining it?"

Apparently not, because many nurses concurred, such as this veteran of 34 years in the intensive care unit. "When I asked my manager whether I could work 8-hour shifts for a few weeks (instead of 12-hour shifts) while recovering from a back procedure, she simply stared at me and said, 'Do you know how many people want your job?' Needless to say, I worked my usual shifts."

A 58-year old nurse experienced a similar reaction. "I was put out to pasture owing to an inoperable shoulder injury. I love the profession and caring for patients. I have a vast amount of knowledge and feel betrayed by my employer, who didn't even try to assist me in finding another position. I am required to disclose my injuries, and that seems to elicit the door being slammed in my face. If it weren't for my husband, I would be another homeless person walking the streets."

Nurses are not blind to the trend of showing older nurses the door, nor to the more subtle strategies used to encourage them to resign. "At age 71, I retired, not because I wished to, but because my employer made it so difficult for me to continue to work. They couldn't dismiss me for errors or being unable to keep up, so my life was made miserable in other ways. Many of my fellow nurses experienced the same thing after they reached the age of 60."

Most see this as a line-item issue, as this nurse explained, "Healthcare systems are pushing us older, experienced nurses out because we cost too much. Isn't it strange that we pay chief executive officers (CEOs) multimillion-dollar salaries with raises, perks, bonuses, and stock portfolios? Most CEOs are hired after age 50, but at the same age, nurses are kicked to the curb."

More optimistic nurses look for this situation to be reversed. "I would like to see more transition-type jobs for nurses who are living close to the retirement edge. They should be offered job-sharing, part-time, and telecommuting positions. To expect nurses to keep working 12-hour shifts after age 50 is crazy."

A 51-year old nurse asks what happened to the idea of an ageless workplace, in which everything possible to keep nurses working is done. "I have been a nurse for almost 30 years and feel smarter and physically stronger than I was in my 20s. Why would you want to lose my intelligence, skills, and experience?" Nurses augur patient dissatisfaction, an elevated risk for sentinel events, and poorer patient outcomes as inevitable consequences of choosing cheap inexperience over wisdom and skill.

Older, highly skilled nurses should be retained to help mentor the new graduate nurses, but the workplace environment often sabotages this plan. "I left the hospital setting when 12-hour shifts and high-acuity patient loads became the norm," said one nurse. "Admissions and discharges occur so fast, it is more factory than hospital. The healthcare industry sucks the frontline nurses dry and them pushes them aside."

A nurse with 35 years of experience who tried to semi-retire at age 60 was told that if she couldn't work full time plus mandatory on-call time, she couldn't keep her job. She regrets having worked so many weekends and holidays so that coworkers with young children could be at home, an effort that clearly went unappreciated when she was forced to resign because "I was unable to pull my weight."


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