Even if you have the strength of a superhero and the stamina of the Energizer Bunny, bedside nursing is a tough job. It's especially grueling for the growing number of RNs 50 and older, who may not bounce back from 12-hour shifts and patient lifting as easily as their younger counterparts. Since 2001, the nurse workforce has added nearly 130,000 RNs ages 50 to 64, constituting 63 percent of the total growth in RN employment over this period, according to US Census numbers.
Mature hospital nurses shouldn't necessarily punch out for good, however. Despite the profession's demands, older bedside nurses can survive -- and even thrive -- in the workplace. Experts offer this advice to older RNs for staying healthy and happy on the job.
Experienced nurses should ask employers for accommodations that will help them stay on the job, says Joan Borgatti, RN, MEd, author of Frazzled, Fried...Finished? A Guide to Help Nurses Find Balance. Employers are often receptive to allowing older nurses to work eight hours instead of 12-hour shifts. They can also purchase hoists and lifts as well as amplifiers for phones and stethoscopes.
If you feel you are physically unable to continue in your current role, seek a change, Borgatti says. Part-time or seasonal work when the census is highest at your facility may be an option. Or draw up a job proposal that combines bedside nursing with less-taxing jobs such as mentoring, reviewing records or preadmission testing.
“Don't say, ‘My back is killing me. I need to be reassigned,'” Borgatti advises, since such complaints are common. “Instead, say, ‘I love my position and working here, but I'd like a change.'” Cast your request in a positive light for the employer. “Go in armed with information,” she adds. “The fact is that recruiting new nurses is costly. It's much cheaper to hold onto a nurse you already have.”
If you can't convince your employer to alter your responsibilities, consider switching units. Units in which patients tend to be small or mobile, like pediatrics or outpatient surgery, are less physically demanding than units like orthopedics or rehabilitation, says Debbie Hatmaker, PhD, RN, president of the Center for American Nurses, an affiliate of the American Nurses Association that focuses on workplace advocacy for nonunion nurses.
Take Care of Each Other
Teamwork is key to nurses remaining on bedside duty into their 50s and 60s, according to Barbara Janusiak, 57, a staff nurse in the intensive-care unit at St. Francis Hospital in Milwaukee and chief steward of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses. “As nurses, we care for our peers as well as our patients,” she says.
When one of Janusiak's colleagues injured her shoulder pushing a cart in surgery, her unit coworkers pulled together to protect her from further harm once she returned to work after extensive rehabilitation. “We wouldn't let her do anything that would potentially cause an injury, like hang an IV bag from over her head,” Janusiak explains.
Take Care of Yourself
It's often said that nurses care for others better than they care for themselves. This may be especially true for nurses in the “sandwich generation,” who care for aging parents and their own children, Borgatti says. Older nurses facing such demands should seek community resources and help from their own families, she recommends. Nurses should also develop care plans for themselves that include exercise, rest, a healthy diet, fun and quiet time. “Nurses need to put themselves higher up on their own to-do lists,” Borgatti adds.
Hashing out your workplace challenges with colleagues can be beneficial. “Some older nurses think they're the only one having problems,” Hatmaker says. “In reality, the average age of a nurse is mid- to upper-40s, and a lot of nurses are having difficulties. Communicating with your colleagues and management about these difficulties is important.”
The current nursing shortage means many employers and nursing administrators are trying hard to retain experienced nurses. So speak up about what you need, Hatmaker advises. “Those very progressive hospitals that are implementing changes wholesale throughout the system and addressing problems systematically will be best able to retain older nurses,” she says.