Janet Patterson, 64, has worked as a nurse for over a quarter of a century. After graduating from Santa Rosa Junior College, she worked in adult telemetry/step-down ICU, helping to implement a number of new programs at her hospital, including cardiac surgery. Over the next few decades, she worked in the ICCU, PICU, and ICN, as well as pediatrics, where she took care of one of the children from the 1989 freeway collapse caused by the Loma Prieta Earthquake. In 2009, she graduated from Sonoma State University with her BSN. However, despite her 35 years of experience, Patterson says she’s often talked down to as though she could not understand new drugs and treatments.

“Sixty is not the new 40. Sixty is an age to be appreciated for itself,” Patterson says. “A nurse who is 60 years old and has 30-40 years of work experience may not be up on the latest version of a drug, but that doesn’t mean they can’t learn.”

Defining Ageism

Unfortunately, Patterson is not alone. Age discrimination cases are not new or rare. Psychiatrist Robert Neil Butler first coined the term in 1969 and defined it as “a process of systematic stereotyping or discrimination against people because they are old, just as racism and sexism accomplish with skin colour and gender.” Over the years, ageism has been defined as negative attitudes, prejudices, or discriminations against people based solely on age.

As the nursing profession ages, a pervasive attitude toward older nurses will continue to increase and create profound implications for nurses. According to a 2013 survey conducted by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing and The Forum of State Nursing Workforce Centers, 53% of the RN workforce is age 50 or older. Yet, ageism has been said to be a largely ignored topic in the nursing industry.

Eileen Sollars RN, ADN, believes ageism in nursing is ignored because not everyone sees it. She says with hospitals looking to trim their budgets and reduce costs, older nurses are often replaced with new nursing graduates.

“Older nurses’ salaries can be larger than new grads, and in some cases, the hospital could afford to hire two new grads to the salary cost of one experienced nurse,” she says. “Without nurses seeing what is happening to older nurses, the administration can silently push these nurses out of their workplace.”

Dispelling the Myths

As ageist attitudes toward older nurses become more prevalent, the issue of ageism in nursing must be addressed. One way to do that is by dispelling some of the more popular myths.

Myth #1 – Nobody wants to hire older nurses.

Not true, according to Jennifer FitzPatrick, MSW, author of Cruising Through Caregiving: Reducing The Stress of Caring for Your Loved One. FitzPatrick says with our expanding aging population—one-third of Americans are 50 or older—older patients really enjoy working with nurses in their age groups.

“There is a nursing shortage in the U.S. and there are many jobs in nursing homes, assisted living, adult day, hospice, home health, and home care, which serve a great many older patients,” she says. “Older nurses are often able to empathize with many of the issues their older patients are facing.”

Christine Colella, MSN, CNP, CS, RN, associate professor of clinical nursing and director for the nurse practitioner programs at the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing, agrees.

“Coming from an academic setting, the aging of the nurse workforce and how that impacts the nurse and patient care is often discussed,” Colella says. “As nurses age and retire, health care loses their collective wisdom, experience, and insights to patients and their care.”

Myth #2 – Older nurses are too frail or damaged to do the physical work.

It’s true that nursing is physically demanding. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the incidence rate of overexertion injuries averaged across all industries was 33 cases per 10,000 full-time workers in 2014. By comparison, the overexertion injury rate for hospital workers was twice the average (68 per 10,000), the rate for nursing home workers was over three times the average (107 per 10,000), and the rate for ambulance workers was over five times the average (174 per 10,000).

Patterson says it’s true that wear and tear has its way with bodies. Due to three on-the-job injuries, she agrees that she’s not as athletic as she used to be and is limited by the consequences of those injuries. “I don’t move as fast. I can’t stand for 12 hours at a time. It takes me longer to lift someone over 60 pounds because I have to do it more carefully, but that doesn’t mean older nurses are incapable of working,” she says.

Sollars adds that nursing is not as physical as it was years ago. “The way we do the job today is safer and less physically stressful than it was before.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, health care and social assistance is one of many occupational sectors studied by U.S. federal agencies such as the BLS, as well as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Their research-based evidence has led to the development of safe patient handling standards and ongoing legislation to enact laws requiring or promoting the use of safe patient handling programs in health care settings.

Myth #3 – Older nurses are too slow, too stubborn, and do not want to (or cannot) learn new skills.

Patterson says that older nurses are farther out from their anatomy, physiology, and pharmacology classes than younger nurses or may not be interested in learning another new IV pump system, but that’s not a reason to say they are not good nurses anymore.

“Of course nurses need to keep up with the fields they work in,” she says. “It’s not safe if we don’t, but it doesn’t automatically follow that nurses fresh out of school are smarter than nurses who’re older.”

Sollars admits that older nurses often get the bad rap of being unwilling and resistant to change. But that’s because of their wisdom and experience.

“We don’t see the need for change just for the sake of change,” she says. “If we have a system that is working for the patient and the nursing staff, why change it? I’ve seen change and then a few years later things would go back to the way it was.”

How to Address Ageism

What can hospital administrators do to address ageism and dispel the myths often associated with it? For starters, Colella says to honor the wisdom and experience of nurses who have always been the foundation for the entire hospital system because they care for the patient 24/7. Their value, however, is not as appreciated as it should be and now with the impact that these retiring/aging nurses will have on the system it has become a concern.

“Value the expertise of the older nurses by having them at the table to discuss ways to improve the work environment,” Colella adds. “Incorporate ways to have them share their wisdom and experience.”

FitzPatrick believes hospital administrators should create an environment where the nurse is judged by his or her performance only, not age or any other factor. “One way to do this is to be aware of the nurse’s generational affiliation but to not make assumptions based on it,” she says. “Administrators need to prioritize age diversity awareness and making training about it as strongly as they do other workplace inclusiveness initiatives.”

Terah Shelton Harris

Terah Shelton Harris

Terah Shelton Harris is a freelance writer based in Alabama, specializing in health, business, and women's issues.
Terah Shelton Harris

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