Reimagining retirement for nurses

October 29, 2019

Retirement is not what it used to be.

It used to be that you would work 40 hours a week (or more) for 40 years (or more) until the day of your big retirement party. With a gold watch in hand (if you were lucky), you’d be done. Off into the sunset you go.

Well, not so much anymore. Particularly among nurses, it can be incredibly hard to simply turn off that passion that drove you for decades—that desire to give back and make a difference. Without that sense of purpose, who are you now?

“That’s a very important existential question and one that should not be underestimated for nurses approaching retirement,” says Adele Webb, PhD, RN, FNAP, FAAN, assistant dean, External Relations & Partnerships at Capella University. “You want to enjoy your retirement, not be mired in an identity crisis.”

Think of it as a gradual descent, not a cliff

Fortunately, more and more nurses are not turning their passion for the profession off, but rather are finding ways to redirect it. According to the 2017 National Nursing Workforce Study, the average age of RNs is 51. In addition, according to a 2017 article posted in the Journal of Nursing Regulation, researchers project that one million RNs will retire by 2030. Keeping nurses engaged past the typical age of retirement can help the profession retain some of the wisdom and experience of older nurses as the torch passes to the next generation.

“It’s incredibly helpful for many nurses not to suddenly and completely check out of the profession,” Webb says. “It makes the transition into your golden years far more rewarding, and far less jarring. Nurses are so dedicated for so long; it can be really hard to cut the ties and just walk away.”

But still, as most nurses will tell you, it can be a stressful career. Rewarding for sure, but it can take a toll. Webb says most nurses eventually do want to step back as they approach retirement, just not jump out of the field completely. In other words, they want to experience retirement as more of a gradual descent, rather than a cliff.

At Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina, nurses are being provided with exactly that opportunity. In the Nurse Leader Laureate program, nurse leaders who are within 24 months of retiring can be selected to participate in an innovative initiative where they step out of their leadership roles, reduce their hours, and dedicate their time to developing their successors. 

“We simply had to do something about losing the wisdom and experience of these highly experienced nurses when they retired,” explains Cathleen Wheatley, DNP, RN, CENP, president and system chief nurse executive for Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “The younger nurses today can benefit so much from what senior nurse leaders have to share. Everyone wins. Nurses win. Patients win. Colleagues win. We are excited to expand this program and share it with other institutions.”

Exploring what’s next

Once in retirement, Webb says there are many opportunities available to nurses who want to stay involved in the field.

“With so many options available to them, I see fewer nurses just cutting the cord today,” Webb says. “More nurses are taking an extended swan song and are continuing to give back.”

They are giving back in a variety of ways, including:

  • Teaching. With the prominence of online education today, retired nurses have a convenient outlet to share their expertise as adjunct faculty members from the comfort of their own homes. And they are needed. “I can tell you from first-hand experience, teaching is a wonderful way to cap a career and pay it forward,” Webb says.
  • Speaking. Whether it is in schools, a community group, or local business organizations, many venues benefit from nurses sharing their perspective on how we can improve the health of our communities.
  • Volunteering.  Countless organizations welcome the skills retired nurses have to offer, but many nurses choose to volunteer at the very institutions where they worked for years. “It’s familiar; it’s family,” Webb says. “But now, you have the freedom to do the type of things you’ve always wanted to do, and you have time.”
  • Boards of directors and steering committees. With their critical-thinking skills and ability to take complex issues and break them down into manageable components, nurses can make for ideal members of boards of directors and steering committees. “There is so much more respect today for the seasoned nurse,” Webb says. “That presents many more substantive opportunities for nurses to share their expertise and be valued for it.”

Like the rest of us, nurses are on the whole living longer, healthier lives. That means more time—potentially decades more time—and energy to continue being the compassionate caregivers they are. That starts with taking the time to rethink what retirement can look like, as it can look very different than it used to.

“Retirement used to mean stopping, and that no longer has to be the case,” Wheatley concludes. “For nurses today, it’s about repositioning. Realigning your passions. Redefining the next chapter of your life as a nurse. That’s exciting.”

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