Too old? Ageism in Nursing


Alice is on her first week of clinical duty as a student nurse. In such a short time, she has learned a lot of things, like how those concepts she has read in books are put into practice and many more. In a span of a week, she has also gained a lot of observations, one of which is her observation that old nurses are hard to come by in the clinical area and most of the staff nurses she has encountered are young. From articles she has read, age discrimination in the profession has been questioned by many. Is it true? Is age discrimination really present in nursing? Are some nurses too old for the profession?

Understanding ageism

The term ageism, which was introduced by the first director of the National Institute on Aging in 1969, was described as a form of discrimination directed toward those who are considered old. In recent years, it has been defined as prejudicial typecasting and negative attitudes towards individuals based on age.

According to a national survey of registered nurses conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2008, for the first time in three decades, the youngest population of nurses increased which is helping to restock the pool of RNs. However, at the same time the older population of nurses continued to grow as well. Furthermore, nearly 45 percent of RNs were 50 years of age or older in 2008, an intense increase from 33 percent in 2000 and 25 percent in 1980.


Signs of ageism

Ageism in an environment can be subtle or overt but here are some key signs in healthcare:

  • Stereotyping all older staff in a certain way such as having poorer technological skills or being slower to respond.
  • Holding a physical impairment against an older worker such as a failure to accommodate age-related disabilities or sticking to a one size fits all scheduling option.
  • Failure to promote older staff often accompanied by the remarks “they will be retiring soon”.
  • Labeling all older staff as being “rigid” or “set in their ways”.
  • Consistently asking older staff about their “retirement plans”.
  • Excluding older staff from outside unit or department social events.

Stereotypes of Older Nurses

Contributing to ageism are stereotypes that are often not evidence-based as ageism is fueled by preconceptions rooted in fear. Examples of which are the following:

  • Older nurses cost their organizations more in benefits because they have more illnesses and use more sick time.
  • Older nurses are unable to fully meet staff nursing job requirements especially the lifting requirements.
  • Older nurses are less flexible and more change resistant.
  • Older nurses are slower in their work than their younger peers.
  • Older nurses are unable to learn new technology on their units.
  • Older nurses are less engaged in their work than their younger colleagues.

Challenges to the older population

The pool of nurses inescapably follows the general aging of the nation. Baby boomers who once filled the halls of healthcare institutions caring for others begin to age and with such, they will definitely have a more difficult time meeting the demands of current healthcare as new demands and changes start to arise such as longer work shifts and more complex acuity of patients.

Physical strain is also viewed as one problem that may be encountered by and may become a problem of older nurses. Since patients have higher acuities, more turning, positioning, and moving are required, that can cause stress on the nurse’s back, neck, arms, and legs. These are said to add more stress and difficulty to older nurses.

As healthcare advances, innovations such as technology are incorporated in the profession. An example is electronic records and other new technologies utilized for assessment, diagnostics and documentation. Those who belong to the older population are said to have the most difficulty in cope with these advances as the younger nurses grew up with advanced technology everywhere around them.


Preventing ageism

In order to prevent age discrimination from occurring in any profession, actions have been taken in some countries such as in the US where age is considered as one of ten protected classifications in U.S. anti-discrimination law, such as race, disability and gender.

Both state and federal laws prohibit discrimination based on age and protect employees from age-discrimination. The age discrimination in employment act prohibits discrimination against individuals seeking employment, starting at age 40 or older.

Moreover, most of the major advocacy organizations, including the NIA, the ILC, the American Association of Retired Persons, and the American Society on Aging, offer solid recommendations to address healthcare ageism.

However, though laws have been passed and promulgated, there are still institutions who are slow in embracing the older workforce.



Liane Clores, RN MAN

Currently an Intensive Care Unit nurse, pursuing a degree in Master of Arts in Nursing Major in Nursing Service Administration. Has been a contributor of Student Nurses Quarterly, Vox Populi, The Hillside Echo and the Voice of Nightingale publications. Other experience include: Medical-Surgical, Pediatric, Obstetric, Emergency and Recovery Room Nursing.

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