People commonly have preconceived ideas about who works certain jobs. When you think of a doctor, a lawyer, a construction worker or a teacher, your brain will naturally conjure an image of the typical age, sex, race and demeanor of the profession. This is a natural way for our brains to sort out endless strings of information. However, these assumptions can be problematic when people begin to discriminate against those who do not match these preconceived notions. Unfortunately, older nurses are common targets of such discrimination, and we refer to this as ageism.
Understanding Ageism in Nursing
Ageism is discrimination based on age. This discrimination may come in the form of unfair treatment or negative attitudes towards people based on their age. Not only is age discrimination illegal, according to the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, but it also has serious detrimental effects on the workplace.
How Ageism Affects Nurses
It is easy to forget that hospitals and clinics operate much like for-profit businesses. They try to cut costs and maximize revenue. Unfortunately, one way many hospitals try to cut costs is by forcing older nurses into retirement. With decades of experience and years of pay increases, older nurses earn more than nursing graduates just entering the field. In some cases, an employer can afford to hire two new nurses for the same price as an experienced, older nurse. This is a major financial incentive to force older nurses out through mistreatment and discrimination.
The fact that ageism often goes unnoticed by nurses’ peers exacerbates the problem. An older nurse who is a victim of discrimination may endure accusations from other nurses; they may claim that the older nurse is being too sensitive or exaggerating the circumstances. This often leads to poor morale, job dissatisfaction, burnout and early retirement.
How Ageism Affects Patients
According to Sarah Kagan’s 2015 article in the Journal of Nursing Management, “Nursing is an ageing profession caring for an ageing society.” Often, older patients feel more comfortable with nurses of a similar age. As we age, our bodies go through a variety of changes, some of which are difficult to talk about. Having nurses over the age of 50 on staff who understand what ageing patients are experiencing improves patient experiences. Kagan goes on to assert that, “Investigations of ageism suggest that discrimination negatively affects health and results in poor health care experiences.”
Not only does age discrimination affect the quality of care patients receive, it can also leave a healthcare facility understaffed. Forced early retirement, the attrition of older nurses, or a hostile atmosphere can significantly reduce nursing staff, which can easily translate into poor patient experiences or even death. If our ageing nurse workforce begins to dwindle due to discrimination, we will lose valuable personnel with lifesaving experience.
In order to combat ageism, one must first understand the misconceptions that fuel age-based discrimination. One common misconception is that older nurses are not physically strong enough to do many of the tasks required on the job. Tasks such as restraining a patient, helping a disabled patient into a wheelchair or catching a falling patient require physical strength.
However, that does not mean that older nurses are incapable of the job. In fact, many older nurses are more aware of their bodies, abilities and weaknesses; therefore, they take care to perform physically demanding tasks safely. Also, due to changes in how nurses perform certain tasks and improvements in safety equipment, brute strength is not as necessary as it once was.
Another damaging misconception is that older nurses are unaware of new medicines, procedures and technologies. This belief — offensive to many — assumes that older nurses are incapable of learning new material.
In the healthcare field, every professional must stay up-to-date on the latest medical information, regardless of their age. Older nurses are just as capable as recently graduated nurses. Indeed, older nurses have years of expertise that make them sources of valuable information. Furthermore, due to the continuing education requirement in the nursing profession, many older nurses are lifelong students who have developed efficient methods of learning and applying new information.
As the population increases and Americans enjoy longer lives, our older adult and elderly populations will continue to grow; therefore, understanding older populations will be critical to the nursing profession. Older nurses are vital resources with special insight into this population. Unfortunately, ageism threatens nurses’ abilities to help patients, serve communities and save lives.
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Kagan, S. H. (2015). Ageism in nursing. Journal of Nursing Management, 23(5), 644-650.
Region/Country, B. (2016). Age Discrimination. United States Department of Labor