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Arkansas State University

Addressing Ageism in Nursing

Discrimination issues are a hot topic in many professional fields today. Most people are familiar with gender and racial discrimination, but there is another group of professionals who regularly experience discrimination in the workplace: older nurses.

Nurses over the age of 40 face unique challenges. However, ageism in the nursing field takes different forms than you might expect.

Age Discrimination in Nursing

Most discussions of workplace discrimination focus on the employer as the primary problem, but the problem of ageism is not limited to interactions with employers. In fact, older nurses suffer from age discrimination from peers and coworkers as well as employers and patients, making the fight back against ageism even more difficult.

In 1975, the federal government took an official stand against age discrimination (also known as ageism) by implementing the Age Discrimination Act. The legislation protects people over the age of 40 against discrimination based on age for hiring, promotions, firing, compensation and terms of employment. In other words, age can never factor into any employment-based decisions for people over the age of 40.

While employers are apt to follow the law and avoid blatant acts of discrimination, ageism is still pervasive in not so obvious ways. For example, many older nurses are victims of bullying and aggressive behavior from coworkers. Bullying and ageism are often based on false beliefs and workplace politics.

False Beliefs About Older Nurses

Some younger nurses falsely assume that older nurses are out of touch with the latest medications, treatments and procedures. As a result, some young nurses and doctors talk down to older nurses with little regard for their years of experience and life-saving skills. Older nurses have accumulated years — often decades — of valuable medical experience and the more competent ones continue to educate themselves on the changing landscape of professional nursing.

Another false belief is that older nurses are too frail to meet the physical demands of caring for patients. However, most medical facilities have implemented safety regulations that prohibit nurses from lifting patients or doing other strenuous activities for the sake of employee and patient safety. At these facilities, all nurses, regardless of age, are required to use specially designed devices that safely move patients and prevent falls or other injuries. Whether any nurse is physically “strong enough” is irrelevant, thanks to improvements in patient care and safety.

Still other older nurses suffer from salary-based ageism. As nurses accumulate experience, they also accumulate pay increases. As a result, employers sometimes discriminate against more experienced nurses by hiring or promoting younger, less experienced, and therefore, less expensive nurses. Employers guilty of this form of discrimination are not only breaking the law set forth by the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, but they are also doing a serious disservice to their patients who would benefit from experienced nursing care.

How Ageism Is Detrimental to Patients

There is no question that ageism is a problem for older nurses; however, the oft-overlooked victims are the patients. There is a great benefit to providing patients with a nursing staff consisting of both younger and older nurses.

Older nurses are troves of valuable case information. Over the course of their professional lives, experienced nurses have seen hundreds of cases that have each contributed to the nurse’s body of knowledge. Older nurses are able to apply their vast stores of knowledge to helping a wide range of patients today. In addition, experienced nurses can provide information and on-the-job training to young nurses that may not have been part of the younger nurses’ academic program.

The Benefits of Younger Nurses

Younger nurses also bring unique value to nursing teams. Younger nurses bring new perspectives and information into medical practice. Fresh out of nursing school, young nurses come equipped with tools and ideas for improving the nursing field. Young nurses often make suggestions for patient care or facility operations that are innovative and beneficial.

When combined with the experience-based insights of older nurses, the contributions of younger nurses can steer the nursing field in a positive direction and improve patient care. Unfortunately, when older nurses are discriminated against, employers, nursing teams and patients miss out on valuable learning and collaborative opportunities. Therefore, it takes a team effort to address ageism and its negative impact on nurses of all ages.

Standing Up Against Ageism

Fighting ageism is a group effort. Ageism cannot be brushed aside as a problem for older nurses to deal with on their own. Rather, acts of age discrimination and workplace bullying harm the entire medical organization, including patients; therefore, all parties involved should address ageism in a unified fashion.

First, employers and employees alike must begin an open dialogue about ageism. By allowing older nurses to communicate their concerns and experiences, employers and younger nurses can learn what the experience of ageism is like. At the same time, open communication allows everyone involved an opportunity to learn about themselves and their own biases.

Next, employers must promote awareness about age discrimination and foster a culture of fairness that does not tolerate ageist comments and behaviors. By establishing clear expectations for employees and employers, the nursing profession can work to eradicate the harmful effects of ageism. It requires everyone — not just older nurses — to get involved and dedicate themselves to standing up against ageism.

Learn about the Arkansas State University online RN to BSN program.


Fight Ageism: What’s the Solution?

Daily Nurse: Ageism in Nursing: Dispelling the Myths

Occupational Safety and Health Administration: Safe Patient Handling

United States Department of Labor: Age Discrimination

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