Registered nurse Shirley Allott retired a few months ago, aged 65, after spending the past two decades working in aged care.
Her body began showing signs of decline years earlier, with hearing and vision loss and arthritis increasingly problematic.
“Some years before I got hearing aids I denied my hearing loss and when I got hearing aids it made such a difference to my life,” Shirley recalls.
“I have worked with nurses at times who are struggling to hear and I think we have to be aware of our physical changes if we’re going to continue on working and respond to them.”
Shirley started to feel old the day a younger nurse remarked – ‘Oh, you’re older than my grandmother’.
In the years leading up to retirement, she continued to work clinically, holding back from switching to a less physically demanding setting because she didn’t want to be bogged down with paperwork.
Shirley says older nurses must remain up-to-date and adapt to new workplace practices in order to remain relevant.
“You have to look inside yourself and ask is it that things aren’t being done properly or is it that things have changed and I haven’t?”
Over time, Shirley reduced her shifts and prepared for retirement financially and importantly, emotionally, by taking up new social interests.
The oldest nurse she worked with was 72 and Shirley suggests if the body is willing, ageing nurses can still play a vital role across the profession.
“Older nurses have an important role in mentoring and providing guidance to new staff, students and newly trained nurses,” she says.
“However, in order to provide mentoring, an older nurse has to understand and be able to adapt to the changes and complexities of the environment in which nurses work.
“Providing a nurse wants to and feels able to continue working, employer support and availability of less physical roles is important.”
According to National Health Workforce Data Set (NHWDS) statistics from 2016, the average age of nurses and midwives is 44.3, with 68,891 nurses and midwives aged between 55-64 and 11,109 nurses and midwives aged 65-74.
In 2010, Victoria’s Department of Health released a paper titled Value added: the wisdom of older nurse at work that explored age management and the benefits of implementing measures and strategies to retain the skills, knowledge and experience of older nurses and midwives.
Using a Mature Worker Retention (MWR) model, the paper outlined strategies that involved fostering learning and development among older workers, developing a workplace culture that values the wisdom of older nurses and midwives, and designing nurse roles to optimise job satisfaction and patient care, including flexible work arrangement and job content.
Key recommendations included consideration of the job content roles of older nurses and midwives and providing variations in work intensity to help manage demands, developing greater understanding about the shift and roster requirements of older nurses, and introducing “phased retirement” options for nurses such as part-time work.
Maternal and child health nurse Helene retired in 2016 a few months short of turning 70.
She says it is important for the workforce to support nurses who want to keep working while it faces looming shortages.
“We have got an enormous wealth of knowledge tucked away behind our qualifications and experience,” Helene says.
“I would encourage nurses not just to think of retiring at 60 or 65 but if they’re enjoying it and physically and mentally functioning well, well keep going.”
Helene worked in the acute sector before moving into community-based maternal and child health nursing to prolong her career by cutting out shift work and night duty.
As she got older, her hearing and vision began to deteriorate naturally, and she developed osteoarthritis, which made work more difficult but not impossible.
Helene says older maternal and child health nurses generally have a great rapport with young mothers and ageism is rare.
“If we’re well and healthy and enjoying our work then we have got the knowledge and I felt I was still very relevant to continue.”
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