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Older Nurse Graduates Find Their Niche

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By Nancy Deutsch, contributor

Many of today’s students entering nursing schools are older than in years past. It is now common for schools to enroll students in their 30s, 40s and even 50s. While many of those entering nursing as older students are looking for a second or third career that offers job security, others are joining the ranks to fulfill a lifelong dream.

Older nurse graduates
Nursing faculty members agree that older nursing graduates are an asset in the workplace as they lend the maturity and life experience needed in such a caring profession.

“One of my first teaching experiences involved a 62-year-old nursing student who had dreamed of becoming a nurse all her life and she decided now was the time to fulfill her dream,” says Claire D. Maze, Ph.D., RN, faculty program director for the online nursing program at South University in Savannah, Georgia. “To this day I can remember her beaming smile on graduation day, when the traditional nursing cap was placed on her head, the nursing pin on her lapel and she was handed her nursing diploma.”

Teaching those with a lifelong dream is very rewarding, Maze says.

But how easy is it for these older students to be in the classroom again? Are there differences in how these older nurses perform or in terms of what is expected of them?

Nursing educators say there are some differences in how older students learn and in how they perform, but the negatives seem to be balanced by positive differences.

Elaine Tagliareni, RN, EdD, president of the National League for Nurses, teaches nursing at a community college in Philadelphia where the average age of her students is 29. The major difference she sees between these students and typical college students in their late teens and early twenties is the benefit of more life experience. If the older student has been out of the academic life for awhile, learning to study again can be difficult, but his or her past experiences help them in their work. “Life experiences help them put things into perspective,” she notes.

Maze agrees. “Older professional nurses are certainly an asset in the workplace as they lend the maturity and life experience needed in such a caring profession,” she says. “The older nurse can communicate with the patients on a level that has a world of depth that younger nurses may still need to grow into.”

Marcia Stevens, RN, DNSc, is the accelerated nursing program coordinator at Minnesota State University in Mankato. She says older students take longer to learn technology than their younger counterparts. “Being able to work equipment doesn’t come as quickly for the older student as opposed to the younger student,” she says. When it comes to learning how an IV pump works for example, older students have more difficulty processing the information, Stevens has noticed.

Part of the difficulty is generational since the older generation didn’t grow up with as much technology, Stevens explains. Part of it may also be age and the fact that older brains are already so full of other information, it takes longer to process new information.

Perhaps because of the learning curve, “I find it takes older nurses longer to be confident in the clinical setting,” Stevens says.

Some older nurses have difficulty multi-tasking and may not be best suited for the ER or ICU, but will do fine in another environment, she suggests.

Maze finds that older students tend to choose different settings and career paths for themselves when they graduate. “The younger nursing graduates will seek out the high-tech, fast-paced and often longer hours in a hospital setting,” she says. “The older graduates tend to seek out nursing education to give back some of their knowledge to the more novice nursing students or to give back to the community in which they live.”

Stevens says she doesn’t think staff or patients expect more of an older nurse than a younger one, but older nurses themselves expect more from themselves. “They’re very critical of themselves. They set high standards.”

Were she to give older nurses advice, Stevens says she would tell them to relax. “They have to realize it takes time to achieve those high standards.” It takes six months to a year for a new nurse to be comfortable in the new clinical setting, she says.

Maze adds that it may take an older nurse time to find the workplace environment that is the best match. “There are many avenues in which you can bring your other life experience into the practice of nursing and that you can use to enrich the practice of nursing. The key challenge is to find the right one for you to take and explore.”

Older nurses have much to offer, she says. “We are never too old to stretch our minds and hearts.”

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