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Health, safety, & wellness


It happens to all of us. Each year, without fail, we grow older. Older adult is a designation that begins at age 50 in the United States. The Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics’ report “Older Americans 2012: Key Indicators of Well-Being” states that in 2010, 40 million Americans were aged 65 or older (13% of the total population). Further, in 2008, more than 44% of registered nurses were aged 50 or older. This makes for an aging nurse workforce caring for an aging population.

As nurses age, they confront new challenges: how to maintain a healthy lifestyle that emphasizes wellness and prevention, work safely, balance the demands of practice with increased family caregiving, and navigate an intergenerational work environment. Fortunately, nurses have the knowledge and skills to forge a path to healthy aging.

As with the general population, when nurses age, their health may decline. According to “Older Americans 2012,” 37.5% of older Americans had difficulty hearing without assistive devices; 14% had trouble with their eyesight, even with glasses or contact lenses; 55.9% experienced hypertension; 11.3% had asthma; 20.5% had diabetes; and 51.2% suffered from arthritis. Add to that, 38% of older Americans were obese and only 11% met 2008 federal physical activity guidelines.

With commitment and planning, there are many strategies we can employ to help maintain our health into our 50s and beyond. A healthy older nurse makes his or her health a priority. Adequate sleep and hydration, nicotine abstinence, a nutritious diet, and an active lifestyle are essential. Research shows exercise, even if begun later in life, benefits overall health. Annual checkups should be scrupulously kept. Always important, influenza and pneumonia immunizations become crucial for the older nurse. And older people are at greater risk for developing shingles. That’s why the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends the shingles vaccine for healthy adults at age 60 for whom the vaccine is not contraindicated. Older nurses need to be vigilant with their own screenings, particularly for colorectal, testicular, prostate, and breast cancer.

The demands of nursing can be physically and emotionally draining for all nurses, and more so as we age. To avoid trips and falls, wear sturdy, nonslip, supportive footwear and hosiery. Practice safe patient handling meticulously—no manual lifting ever! Fatigued? It may be time to consider part-time work or shorter shifts.

An appropriate work-life balance may be difficult. An older nurse may have to deal with his or her own chronic health problems and care for those of aged parents, a spouse or partner, grandchildren, or an adult disabled child. Make time for self-care—reading a favorite book, exercising, praying, meditating, or visiting a treasured (healthy) friend. Seek out support groups, employee assistance programs, and local and state resources.

Finally, nurses ages 50 and older come in contact with patients and coworkers spanning several generations. Generational challenges in nursing can include differences in communication styles, attitudes, work ethics, and technology. Older nurses often bring wisdom to their peers and greet these challenges with tolerance and civility, while mentoring newer nurses and valuing their knowledge as well. Older nurses offer unique skills and gifts to the profession—not only experience and history but research, education, dedication, and empathy that can develop only through time. As Betty Friedan noted, “Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”

Selected reference

Huggins CE. Exercise later in life tied to healthy aging. December 5, 2013. Accessed January 31, 2014.

The Registered Nurse Population: Findings from the 2008 National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses; September 2010. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
. Accessed January 27, 2014.

Holly Carpenter is a senior staff specialist in Nursing Practice and Work Environment at ANA.

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