Baby Boomers, those born from 1946 to 1964, make up 29-percent of the American population. There are about 75 million Boomers in the United States and they comprise the country’s largest age-related demographic. This year, 2008, the age range of Boomers is 44 to 62. The Boomers are growing old. Thanks to medical advances, they will also be living to increasingly advanced ages.
Guess who else is growing old (in working world jargon)? About 30-percent of practicing nurses nationwide are over the age of 50. I am a Boomer myself and I see a problem. Certainly, I've not discovered anything new but the problem becomes scarier when it becomes personal. At precisely the time I’ll be reaching an age when I likely could need more medical care, one-third of the nursing work force will reach, or be approaching, retirement age right along with me. We all know that the supply of new nurses is not keeping up with demand, so the nursing shortage will become even more critical as these older nurses leave the profession. So, who is going to take care of me?
The answer to that question is up in the air and probably will continue to float around up there for several years. For one thing, there is not a single solution to the nurse shortage, nor will there ever be. Solutions will have to come from a multitude of directions, focused on individual facets of the crisis.
To help chip away the problem comes the Aging Nurse Project at Massachusetts General Hospital, the brainchild of 64-year-old RN, Ed Coakley. Simply put, the project takes information gleaned from interviews with older nurses, evaluates their concerns and develops plans to mitigate issues the nurses find disquieting. It turns out that a significant number of older nurses want and, in some cases, also need to continue working. But, they have concerns about the physical demands that are inherent to the profession, particularly lifting and moving patients. They fear back injuries and the lack of stamina required to perform their jobs well.
In an effort to retain that group of nurses, some hospitals have made concessions for them that include shorter work shifts and flexible hours, retraining for work in less strenuous work settings and pairing them with younger nurses to create a more functional intergenerational staff.
All are forward thinking moves that the Boomer nurses are embracing. Massachusetts General reports that about a third of its nursing staff are over 50 and their turnover rate is about 4-percent, a good indication that the older nurses are happy with the changes and content with their jobs.
I’m impressed by the willingness of the hospitals to be flexible and to seek and initiate these changes. Despite their having little choice, really--all are scrambling to maintain staffing levels--it is always a challenge to move away from the procedural norm. The changes are not the be-all and end-all in fixing the nurse shortage but they make perfect sense and are proving to be effective. Maybe there’ll be a nurse to take care of me--and you--after all.