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Retired Nurses Ease a Staffing Crunch, Bolster Budget

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   September 20, 2011

The nursing workforce is rapidly graying and healthcare isn't doing enough to prepare for it. The impending "silver tsunami" of patients that we know will tax healthcare's resources will arrive at the same time that vast swathes of experienced nurses reach retirement.

The median age of the nurse workforce is 46. Almost 45% of nurses are older than 50. Many delay retirement as long as possible, but hospitals must acknowledge that they will soon lose a significant portion of their most skilled staff. These are the unit managers, the educators, and the experienced bedside caregivers who mentor younger nurses and who provide invaluable wisdom in policy and procedure decisions, care delivery models, and quality improvement initiatives.

Hospitals must find a way to retain the collected knowledge and experience of older nurses for as long as possible. We've seen nurses delay retirement in this economic climate, but keeping them in the workforce long-term necessitates policies and programs specifically designed to provide flexibility and different options than currently offered.

Nurses frequently comment that they'd like to stay in nursing, but can't physically keep up with 12-hour shifts and the rigors of patient care. Branching out from traditional staffing models may take some effort, but the dividends will be well worth it.

MidMichigan Health, a nonprofit system based in Midland, MI, has kept older nurses connected at the same time as it eliminated its need for agency nurses and increased the satisfaction of its nurses.

It installed staffing and scheduling software that allows nurses to view open shifts across the health system and pick up hours that are convenient for their schedule. In doing so, it eliminated the need for agency nurses, saving almost $2.5 million in the past two years, and increased its staff satisfaction.

But what is different about MidMichigan's efforts are that it has opened up its staffing and scheduling solution to include retired nurses.

The health system found it had a cadre of retired nurses who didn't want to entirely stop working, so it utilized the available talent to fill gaps in schedules, work on special projects, and generally improve the staffing situation across the whole system.

"We had a lot of retirees that took a retirement package we offered as a cost saving measure," says Tonia VanWieren, BSN, RN, director maternity unit/pediatrics, nursing office/shift administrator, MyTimeSelect/system staffing. "Then they wanted to come back to work because of the economy and different things in their lives."

The flexible scheduling doesn't affect retirement benefits. Retired nurses can pick up extra income in a way that is convenient to both the nurses and the system.

"There's lots of opportunity for them to come back at their convenience and on shifts that work for them," says VanWieren. "Those people have a lot of experience, a lot of things they can offer the younger people. And it helps us in a staffing crunch as we haven't had to utilize agencies. It helps cover those high-need areas or holes that might be out there to help meet our staffing goals."

Some retired nurses work at MidMichigan in the summer and then winter in Florida or somewhere balmy to escape brutal Michigan winters. Others pick up occasional shifts or work as on-call or float nurses. Another option helps MidMichigan bring in an experienced nurse for project work, such as when transitioning to a new electronic medical record or development new policies or procedures.

"[Retirees] have a lot of experience and knowledge that we gain from bringing them back in because they worked here for 30 years," says VanWieren.

Flexible models such as this allow nurses to retire or alleviate the physical demands of nursing while contributing to their employers in a way that benefits both sides. It's one solution to a looming problem.

Rebecca Hendren is a senior managing editor at HCPro, Inc. in Danvers, MA. She edits and manages The Leaders' Lounge blog for nurse managers. Email her at

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