Nurses Are Talking About the Real Reasons They Postpone Retirement

Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS


May 07, 2015

In This Article

Can't Wait

Retirement is, for many nurses, a highly anticipated event. This 50-year-old nurse proclaimed that she "cannot wait to retire, but I still have two children in college."

A nurse practitioner shared, "I'm tired and burned out by the federal bureaucracy for which I work. I hate to leave a career that I have loved for 40 years feeling bitter, but that's the way it is. I plan to retire in a few months when I turn 62." She had a caveat, however, with respect to gambling on her future. "If I win the lottery, I'll retire the next day."

"Love of the job," maintained one nurse, "is not what is keeping me in. It's fear of what healthcare reform is going to do to nurses. When the economy improves, I'm out."

To justify her eagerness to retire, another nurse, who no longer enjoys nursing, offered a commentary on what nursing has become:

The "care" has gone from healthcare. The working conditions are deplorable—equipment in disrepair, missing supplies, lifting patients without help, caring for patients on hallway gurneys. I was sworn at by a physician when I approached him with a patient concern. Everything is focused on patient length of stay and computer charting to check all the boxes, capture the revenue, and document quality measures. We are told not to narrative-chart because it doesn't increase revenue and takes too much time. We have no time to talk to patients after the initial assessment; we just perform tasks. We are pressured to clock in and out on time, document patient vital signs and assessments every 2 hours, and reconcile medications. I see many instances of cutting corners to save time. Seasoned nurses are pushed away from the bedside.

Back to the Question: Why Aren't Nurses Retiring?

The study[7] that originally stimulated this discussion concluded that many nurses were delaying retirement because they enjoyed working. Comments by nurses reveal that this is true for a few nurses, but it is by no means the primary reason for nurses to take a rain check on retirement.

Instead, the answer to the question, "Why aren't nurses retiring?" seems to be that after years of back-breaking work, nurses are rewarded with poverty-level retirement incomes. Economic stability has left the building, and with it has gone the hopes of an easy retirement for thousands of diligent career nurses.

Hard on the heels of insufficient income as the chief obstacle to retirement is the imminent loss of health insurance coverage. Nurses are wise. Having spent so many years witnessing the economic devastation of chronic illness, accidents, and unexpected health crises on the uninsured, they hesitate to go even a day without adequate health insurance. For this benefit alone, many nurses will continue to drag themselves into work long past that red-letter day on which they had hoped to retire.

We also heard from nurses who sampled retirement, but found it wanting. The risk posed by temporary retirement, however, is that when nurses try to reenter the workforce, they find the door firmly closed. Many nurses who participated in the discussion described a clear trend for employers to ignore the impending brain drain and show what they view as expensive, timeworn budgetary burdens that very same door. Resigning from any position when you are over the age of 50 is ill advised, according to these nurses, unless you are very certain that you won't want or need to return to work.

The emotions attached to the topic of retirement spanned a wide range, from uncertainty and doubt to anger and fear. Nurses expressed both eagerness to retire and bitterness toward the obstacles in their path. And then there is the question asked by this nurse, which probably is shared by nearly all older nurses who are nearing retirement:

'"Retirement is scary! Who will take care of us?"


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