By Kate Jaimet
Retirement: Finding the Right Time to Go
Whether viewing the prospect with enthusiasm or anxiety, RNs approaching retirement face many of the same questions: Am I still enjoying my job? How I am going to fill my time later? Can I even afford to stop working? We asked five nurses, who have either already retired or are fast approaching a retirement date, to explain what influences the decision to retire…or to stay in the workforce
Beverly Gilbert retired in January 2012, but the 71-year-old still picks up casual shifts in the hospital where she’s worked for the past 50 years. She feels her colleagues in the Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital in Burlington, Ont., are family, and going to work allows her to keep in contact with them. Gilbert continues to find fulfilment in her job, where she uses a lifetime of knowledge to assess patients and prepare them for surgery.
Over her long career, Gilbert has worked in a number of the hospital’s units and done innumerable night and weekend shifts. Then, 15 years ago, she took charge of the pre-op department, where her duties included taking patients’ medical histories, ordering blood work and doing assessments. “It was a perfect fit for a woman then in her late 50s,” she says, “Day shifts only, no heavy physical work and an opportunity to use all the experience I’ve gained over the years.”
She moved to job-sharing in her late 60s as a way of easing herself into retirement. Now, she picks up shifts when it suits her. Gilbert, who says she thinks older workers have a lot to contribute, doesn’t plan on giving up working in the foreseeable future. “It’s reassuring to go into work and know I still have the skills and competencies to do my job. Because it’s kind of frightening to think you’re getting too old and can’t do it anymore.”
Best of both worlds
Like Gilbert, Bridget Cooksey, who has had a 40-year nursing career, finds it difficult to contemplate not going to work. Although she initially planned to retire in June 2013 (shortly after her 65th birthday), as the date approaches, she’s realized she isn’t ready to leave.
“I think I still have a lot to offer,” says Cooksey, a full-time nurse at the mental health outpatient clinic at the Ottawa Hospital’s Civic Campus. “I’m still learning, I feel respected here, and I feel I do a good job.”
Last year, she worked out an arrangement with a colleague to work day shifts, Monday to Friday, on alternating weeks. “I thought that job-sharing would give me more freedom to see my grandkids and to travel. But I would also have the opportunity to continue improving my skills and knowledge,” she says. If it were shift work, though, she wouldn’t even have considered the plan: “I would have been thinking about retiring for sure.” (Recent restructuring means the arrangement hasn’t been approved as yet, but Cooksey, who continues to work full time, is hopeful things will work out.)
Laurel Hawthorne, 61, is counting down the days, and she swears she’ll never again set foot on the ward once she’s waved goodbye to her psychiatric nursing job. She knows that after retirement, she’ll still meet for dinner and drinks with the gang from the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, but there will be relief in knowing she won’t have to deal with workplace issues again.
When Hawthorne spoke to Canadian Nurse in November, she had just 12 shifts to go before her retirement. “I love the job. I love the patients. Most of the staff are great. But sometimes the politics and the paperwork really frustrate me,” she says.
Hawthorne is a floor nurse, working part-time evening shifts on the mood and anxiety unit of the Royal. Her unit has 14 beds for mood-disorder patients and eight crisis beds, which were added two years ago. She has worked at the Royal for 39 years, but she feels that with the change in management structure in 2006, she now has little decision-making power and support as a nurse on the front lines.
The result of the changes, Hawthorne says, is that working conditions for nurses have deteriorated. “Our autonomy has been taken away. It’s getting to the point where you can’t do anything without writing reams and reams of protocol on what you did.”
Hawthorne’s future plans include taking care of her 89-year-old father. Helping him isn’t the catalyst for her retirement, but she says she’s using it as an excuse: “I’m tired of my job.”
What the numbers tell us
According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information’s Regulated Nurses: Canadian Trends, 2007 to 2011, just over one-quarter of working RNs are 55 or older. Of the total number of RNs in the workforce in 2011 (270,724), about 38,000 were between the ages of 55 and 59 and another 32,000 were age 60 or older.
After hitting the age of 55, RNs can typically anticipate retiring within the following five to ten years — that is, any time between their 60th and 65th birthdays. Statistics show that about 11 per cent of RNs age 60 and over leave the workforce each year. In fact, those 65 and over accounted for just 3.5 per cent of the RN workforce in 2010.
There were close to 13,000 more working RNs in 2011 than there were in 2007, but Gail Tomblin Murphy, director of the WHO/PAHO Collaborating Centre on Health Workforce Planning and Research at Dalhousie University, says she is concerned about current trends. In a 2012 article in Health Policy, “Eliminating the Shortage of Registered Nurses in Canada: An Exercise in Applied Needs-Based Planning,” she and her research colleagues estimated that Canada had had a shortage of 11,000 full-time RNs in 2007 and that the shortage could grow to 60,000 by 2022 unless something is done to address it.
“When we looked at what was driving this gap, we found that requirements for nursing care were going to increase at a greater rate than the increase in supply,” explains Adrian MacKenzie, a senior analyst at the centre and co-author of the article.
Hiring new, young nurses, redeploying nurses to make the most efficient use of their skills and retaining older nurses in the workforce are important elements in addressing the potential shortage, says Tomblin Murphy. “I’m hearing a lot of nurse leaders say that we need to pay more attention to keeping these older nurses in the system. Their knowledge, skills and expertise are so valuable as we bring new graduates in.”
Life situations change
Taking care of an elderly parent was a deciding factor in Cheryl Winger’s decision to leave the workforce. Winger was a respiratory nurse educator at Manitoba’s Brandon Regional Health Centre. She never thought she would retire at the age of 58. She was passionate about her clinical work, was active in the Manitoba Nurses Union and the College of Registered Nurses of Manitoba and had held volunteer executive positions on the board of the Canadian Nurses Respiratory Society and its successor, the Canadian Respiratory Health Professionals.
“Some of us used to joke about going in to work and saying things like: ‘Cheryl, you forgot your teeth; go back home and get them,’” she laughs. “We talked about how we were never going to retire.”
In 2008, however, Winger’s 88-year-old mother suffered a recurrence of breast cancer after a double mastectomy several years before. Winger initially took a six-week leave of absence to care for her. Then, she had her mother move in with her. At around the same time, Winger experienced a sudden onset of lactose intolerance and fibromyalgia. Eventually, it all became too stressful.
“I think the biggest thing was my tiredness and the aches and pains. I used to go to work and say: ‘Has anybody seen my energy? Where’s my get-up-and-go gone?’ I was just dragging my butt,” she says.
Because of the length of time she’d been in nursing, Winger was eligible to retire with a full pension at 55. With her financial future secure, retirement began to look like the logical option. In September 2009, she finally took that step. But the loss of her professional role was difficult to deal with.
After her mother passed away in 2010, Winger took up daily tai chi practice, which has eased the symptoms of her fibromyalgia. Her life is less stressful now and she is enjoying working on sewing projects and spending time with her grandchildren. But she still misses work from time to time.
Although Winger has never let her nursing registration lapse, she’s decided to change the status to “non-practising.” She plans to maintain her connection to the profession by volunteering for committees and guest lecturing at the Brandon site of the University of Manitoba nursing program.
The bottom line
Lack of financial stability can be a big factor in the decision to retire. That’s what keeps Patricia MacQueen working at St. Mary’s Hospital in Sechelt, B.C. She spent much of her career working in the operating room and the emergency department but now works in the ambulatory care unit.
“As I get older, I’ve been discovering that the brain is willing, but the body isn’t,” MacQueen says. “I’m turning 70 in June and I can’t see an end in sight, and it’s very scary. My partner had a couple of small strokes and he can’t work, so I’m the breadwinner. Luckily, we own our home. But my pension is not very good.”
Early in her nursing career, MacQueen explains, she opted not to pay into a pension plan. “I was young and foolish and ignorant. I can remember discussing the pension plan with my husband, and he convinced me we could put our money elsewhere and make more.”
When that marriage ended in a financially disastrous divorce, she began paying into a plan and continued to make contributions for 20 years before “officially” retiring at the age of 65. But with her combined government and nursing pensions paying only $1,700 a month, she finds it difficult to get by. So she supplements her income with casual shifts.
For most of the past five years, MacQueen has had steady work of two shifts a week, plus additional shifts whenever people call in sick. But the work is never guaranteed. “When you’re casual, you never know. It’s a crapshoot,” she says.
She also finds the front-line nursing work — assisting the chemo nurse, mixing intravenous drugs, starting IVs and doing dressing changes for ambulatory patients — often exhausting. “I can’t do nights anymore. And I can do six hours or eight hours, but I can’t do 12,” she says. “I’ve had times when I’ve worked three or four days in a row, and my knees are so sore after that I can hardly stand up.”
MacQueen says she doesn’t see her employer making extra accommodations for her because of her age. In fact, she had to put her foot down about nights and 12-hour shifts. “I just said no to them,” she says. “The only right a casual has is the right of refusal.”
MacQueen figures she’s been working at one job or another since she was 13, and she is ready for retirement. She’s trying to cut back on expenses so she can learn to live on her pension. “If we can sell our house, we’ll have a nest egg and I can quit,” she says.
Pension plans for nurses vary from one region to another and sometimes from one institution to another. Generally, though, the longer a nurse has been working and paying into the pension plan, the greater the benefits to be reaped at retirement. (There is no mandatory retirement age in Canada, so nurses may be able to continue to work indefinitely. However, under the Income Tax Act, after age 71, workers can no longer pay into a registered pension plan or accumulate pension benefits.)
Sometimes, the opportunity to contribute to a plan is not even an option. For example, prior to 1992, Ontario nurses who worked part time were not allowed to pay into the Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan. Although they could “buy back” time in the plan after the rules changed, some chose not to or couldn’t afford to, and they now face the prospect of retirement on meagre incomes.
“A lot of my friends who are working full time are burnt out. They would love to retire, but they can’t afford it because they worked part time at some point,” says Hawthorne. “I don’t know anyone who will be able to retire with a full pension.”