About five years ago, when she was in her early fifties, my friend Nancy made a decision that surprised her family and friends. She was going back to school. And she was going to become a nurse.
“A nurse?” more than a few people responded. “Why would you want to go through all that schooling? Start a whole new career at this age? Nursing is not easy, you know.”
“I had been the primary caregiver for both my aunt and one of my very close friends during their final months,” Nancy told me. “And I found that I was a natural at it. Being able to do what I did for them showed me that I had a calling for nursing, even though I’d been doing something else for almost 30 years.”
That “something else” was working as a top-level executive assistant. Nancy had been the right-hand-woman to some of the most prominent corporate leaders at some of the largest firms in her city, in fields ranging from commercial real estate to publishing. Could she walk away from the world of designer suits and catered lunch meetings into the completely different world of scrubs and sandwiches from the cafeteria? She could, she did, and she’s never been happier. Nancy found that she was in good company, and plenty of it, as someone who chose a nursing career later in life.
Nancy, and others like her, knew going into it that beginning a nursing career is no small undertaking. As with any profession, good education, training and preparation for the realities of the job are essential to a candidate’s success, as is the support of one’s family and the ability to withstand the rigors of, perhaps, both attending school and working full time. Nurses, however, are in high demand, a situation that is expected to continue for decades so colleges and employers are finding ways to make classes and clinical assignments a viable option for those coming to nursing as working adults. If you already have a Bachelor’s degree, many schools have accelerated nursing (BSN) programs that allow you to earn your degree more quickly. There are also part-time nursing programs that let you continue to work full time in your current position while studying. And many schools offer some of their courses online so you can work from home, a valued convenience for many older nursing students.
What does it take to become a nurse, at any age? Of course, the love of working with people is paramount. An aptitude for math and science, excellent communication skills and thriving on intensity and a fast-paced environment are critical as well. Older nursing students, however, are especially valued by nursing schools and prospective employers, because they bring energy and focus to their studies and work. This may stem from their having arrived in the field after years of considering it and finally having the chance to bring all that’s inside them out and applied to the real world, or, like Nancy, finding their way to nursing after a life-changing experience.
Why does nursing appeal to people who may have spent 20 or more years in non-medical fields? In addition to the feeling of personal satisfaction, people in their forties or fifties may be thinking about that not-as-far-away-as-it-seems retirement age, and are looking for a career with excellent earning potential and job security to carry them through the next 20 years or more. Nursing certainly fits the bill. With nursing salaries on the rise and many different opportunities for employment (visiting nurse, hospice, administration, phone triage, as well as traditional patient care roles in hospitals and offices), new nurses in their fifties will have options far beyond what would be open to them in other professions.
Women aren’t alone in finding their way to nursing careers after spending decades doing “something else.” Men are turning to nursing as a second career in ever-increasing (though still small) numbers. The often say they desired to pursue nursing as college students, but concerns about societal perceptions led them down other paths of study. Later in life, with more perspective and confidence and years of other kinds of experience under their belts, often seeking more meaningful work, they’re able to return to school and become nurses. Many men who come to nursing as a second career gravitate to intense specialties, like ICU and ER, while others apply their “old life” business skills to hospital administration or management.
A Vanderbilt University School of Nursing study cites concerns that the average age of working RNs increased by 4.5 years between 1983 and 1998. At present, the average age of working RNs is approximately 45.4 years, a number which has increased by more than 3.5 years since 2000. And the nursing shortage of the last ten years is expected to continue if less young students choose the field while large cohorts of RNs retire. Nancy, for one, is looking forward to spending the next fifteen years at least fifteen years at the job she began after completing her degree and passing her boards: working in the post-anesthesia unit at the VA hospital in her city, where she did her first clinical rotation.
I love it here; I love the hospital, my patients and my co-workers,” she beams. “If I’d only known then what I know now.”