Ageism in nursing is a real and present threat to the profession, and to the healthcare system writ large.
In reviewing articles about ageism in nursing, one might believe that it occurs only in relation to older nurses, yet ageism can cut both ways.
Any form of age-based discrimination is reprehensible, and only those aware of the problem can speak up and take action against it.
In a 2013 survey commissioned by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing in the United States, 53% of the American nursing workforce is aged 50 or older.
Since then, a growing ‘Millennial’ population of nurses is stepping into the workplace and infusing the profession with a younger generation.
Whether a nurse is discriminated against for being too old or too young, ageism can hurt on a personal level, as well as potentially damaging or crippling a promising career.
The fallout of ageism may stymie a nurse’s career trajectory, or negatively affect the choices that are made in relation to seeking a promotion, applying for a new position, or returning to school.
Younger nurses who feel judged for their youthfulness and fewer years of nursing experience may not as assertively pursue the opportunities that would move their professional lives forward.
After all, enthusiasm and desire for knowledge are the twin engines of a burgeoning nursing career.
Older nurses may feel prematurely pushed towards retirement.
While physical stamina or tech skills may be weaker in the older generations, other forms of knowledge, expertise, and skill are important aspects of what they bring to the table.
Misconceptions about both youth and ageing lend themselves to an unnecessary poor treatment of valuable workers who have much to contribute to their communities and workplaces.
Ageism and the Nursing Shortage
In various countries around the world, nursing shortages have real-life impact. And with a so-called “silver tsunami” of ageing citizens straining healthcare systems of some countries, age-based discrimination has no place.
Able-bodied, intelligent nurses willing to provide care and make a meaningful contribution should be encouraged to remain in the workforce in an effort to shore up the system.
Patients Need and Want Diversity
Patients undergoing medical treatment benefit when receiving care from a nurse of a relatively similar age. There is something to say for an older nurse relating and empathising with an older patient’s concerns.
Likewise, a younger nurse can often communicate more effectively with a patient with whom she shares a generational bond.
The diversity of the patient population should, to whatever extent is possible, be reflected in the healthcare teams providing care.
Diversity of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and age benefits everyone involved.
No Crime, No Punishment
When nurses are punished, ostracised, or discriminated against for being perceived as either too old or too young, everyone loses.
Being a 22-year-old nurse fresh out of school isn’t a crime, nor is being a 65-year-old nurse with 40 years of experience.
Older nurses may receive greater pay based on experience, yet cutting costs is no reason to weed them out.
Older nurses bring a breadth and depth of experience that can be transmitted to younger nurses, with institutional knowledge passed on through mentorship, informal teaching, and hands-on instruction.
Erase Ageism in the 21st Century
Like any form of discrimination, ageism has no place in 21st-century healthcare.
With a diverse population of patients, an ageing citizenry, and nursing shortages, an all-hands-on-deck approach is prudent.
Individual nurses, nursing organisations, and healthcare workplaces must stand up against ageism. This damaging practice devalues experienced nurses and detracts from the effectiveness of healthcare delivery.
Patients deserve a diverse and experienced workforce that delivers effective care, and nurses deserve workplaces where their life experience, skill, and knowledge are duly recognised and valued.
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- Kagan, SH & Melendez-Torres, GJ 2015, ‘Ageism in Nursing’, Journal of Nursing Management, vol. 23, no. 5, pp. 644-50, viewed 22 February 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24238082
Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC, is a holistic career coach for nurses, award-winning nurse blogger, writer, podcaster, speaker, author, and popular career columnist. With two decades of nursing experience, Keith deeply understands the issues faced by 21st-century nurses. Keith’s two podcasts, RNFM Radio and The Nurse Keith Show, offer inspiration and practical support to nurses seeking to create meaningful, satisfying lives and careers. Keith’s message of savvy career management and professional satisfaction reaches tens of thousands of nurses worldwide. Keith can be found on many social media platforms---including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Instagram---as well as at www.nursekeith.com and Digital Doorway.