Monday, February 22, 2010

Survey: Older nurses sticking around

Marjorie J. Shibler has a mortgage.

Juliette Crichton wants to continue a lifestyle of monthly pedicures and workouts with a personal trainer.

Luzviminda Jusayan hopes to avoid the boredom and weight gain of staying at home.

They’re all registered nurses who are old enough to be on Medicare but have no plans to retire.

“There’s always going to be a need – forever – because there’s always going to be ill patients,” said Shibler, 73, a medical-surgical nurse at Chesapeake General Hospital . “My future plan is to work at the hospital until I can’t work anymore.”

Though older nurses are hardly a staple in Virginia health care, a surprising number of those still around intend to stay.

About 30 percent of the state’s registered nurses between ages 66 and 70 said they planned to work at least another five years, according to a recent survey by the Virginia Department of Health Professions. More than 40 percent of the state’s licensed practical nurses in that age group said they would stay on the job another 10 years or more.

The trend is helping to temporarily relieve the state’s nursing shortage.

Those results also mirror other polls showing that older workers are delaying retirement to bolster financial security during tough economic times.

Elaine Griffiths, Chesapeake Regional Medical Center’s chief nursing officer, thinks there’s more to it than that. As life expectancy increases, she said, people are accomplishing more in later years.

“Our whole notion of older people’s capabilities and wisdom in their profession is being modified,” she said.

On Chesapeake General’s fifth floor, Shibler tends to five or six patients a day.

She assesses them from head to toe, administers medication and fulfills doctors’ orders. When needed, she starts IVs and performs a particular type of dialysis through the abdomen. She also is trained to handle skin wounds sustained by patients during long hours in bed.

Shibler became a nurse in 1981 after a divorce forced her to find an income.

“I thought, 'What could I do forever?’” said the grandmother of two.

She keeps working to pay the bills – and because she likes the experiences and autonomy that go along with a full-time job.

Her colleagues see her as “old school” because of the time she devotes to talking with patients – and perhaps for her occasional struggles with computers.

Shibler is not afraid to ask for help with “texting, computer stuff, hi-fi and hi-wi and all the crap that I don’t know anything about.”

Years of experience in a profession that demands problem solving sets Shibler apart, said Margaret Summers, a nurse manager at Chesapeake General.

“The new ones,” she said, “they just don’t have that yet.”

Patients who find out how old these nurses are often respond the same way: “Wow.”

Some older patients prefer talking to a caregiver closer to their own age.

“We can talk about things the younger nurses wouldn’t know anything about,” said John Horn, 74, who works as a licensed practical nurse at Sentara Heart Hospital. Like the Korean War, he said. Like “what it was like before we had television all the time.”

Juliette Crichton , who turned 71 on Saturday , is often mistaken for someone years younger. Despite a hip replacement a little more than year ago, she works out twice a week with a trainer who is a former Olympian in handball.

Like Shibler, Crichton specializes in preventing and treating skin wounds. She has worked at Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital since 1981.

“They’ll say to me, 'Honey, when you’re my age …’” Crichton said. “I’ll think, 'I’m not going to tell them.’”

She trained in the 1960s when nurses were taught to help patients look pretty and give them back rubs.

Today, people who are hospitalized typically suffer from numerous and more serious ailments and nurses don’t have time for such niceties, she said.

“Nursing was always hard, but the patients are so much more complicated,” Crichton said.

Her colleague Linda Neely points to advances that have made the job easier and medical care better, such as magnetic resonance imaging.

Even the fax machine helped, she said, remembering occasions in the past when she would go to doctor’s offices to retrieve records. Neely, who turned 67 on Friday , is the lone nurse in the radiation oncology department of Virginia Beach General. She prepares cancer patients for treatment and makes sure they fully understand the procedures.

Colleagues covet her job for its regular weekday shifts and its specialized focus. Some keep tabs on her retirement plans, but Neely brushes them off.

“I’m looking at 75, but I’m not committing to anything,” she said.

That might have been different if she’d kept her position in a medical-surgical unit, where nurses are responsible for several patients in different rooms and are on their feet all day. After back surgery two years ago, Neely stopped doing heavy lifting.

Most problems that come with aging – such as diminished eyesight – can be easily corrected in the nursing workplace, said Griffiths, the chief nursing officer with Chesapeake Regional.

Nurses, like other hospital employees, must be able to demonstrate competence in their field every year for the organization to maintain accreditation from The Joint Commission, a nationally recognized group.

If older caregivers meet those requirements, Griffiths said, she does n’t worry about their capabilities.

Equipment and co-workers can help with some of the physical issues, such as lifting. At Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters, managers have considered scheduling older nurses differently, so their three 12-hour shifts are not on consecutive days, said Penny Hatfield, a nurse manager.

Luzviminda Jusayan started tending to babies after she injured her back lifting adult patients. Now, she works in CHKD’s neonatal intensive care unit with infants sometimes smaller than 1 pound.

At 66, she’s one of the oldest of 150 registered nurses in her unit, and she knows tricks to keep her body from tiring too easily. She wears support panty hose and Easy Spirit slip-on shoes and sits down to do paperwork when she can, twirling her ankles to restore circulation.

Friends who retired advised her against it, saying there was nothing to do but watch television and eat.

Jusayan’s job gives her purpose. The babies she cares for inhabit her thoughts and dreams, even when she’s away from the hospital. “It’s in your head,” she said. “Maybe you can say it’s in your blood.”

Amy Jeter, (757) 446-2730,

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