How has Covid-19 affected the lives of older nurses?

by Maggie O’Neill, National University of Ireland, Galway

The effects of COVID19 have challenged societies and healthcare systems across the world.

And that impact has been especially pronounced for the working lives of nurses, who work in front-line roles, a new study reveals.

“I feel that we’re still basically seen as the handmaidens of the health service. And I wouldn’t have felt that before the pandemic, but I do now.”

These were the words of Martina – not her real name – who was one of 25 older nurses we interviewed for a recent research study on how the pandemic has affected older nurses in Ireland.

By giving voice to older nurses in Ireland in this way, we hope to provide understanding of their experiences at this time of crises, to identify the resources that are needed to support them to keep working or in their pathways to retirement, in the context of a health system in Ireland that was already under-resourced before the pandemic.

Our qualitative study focuses on the experiences and views of older nurses in Ireland of working through the pandemic to explore, firstly, what are the main impacts of the pandemic on the working lives of older nurses in Ireland, including theirs and their families’ health and wellbeing? And, secondly, how does the pandemic affect their retirement timing decisions? Twenty-five nurses aged 49 and over participated in telephone or online interviews, sixteen women and nine men. Pseudonyms are used in this article.

Poor health impacts

Our key finding was that many older women nurses in Ireland are now seeking to retire early. The findings stem from interviews carried out in early 2021, representing a follow up to in-depth interviews about their working lives with the same nurses prior to the pandemic. While some nurses respond positively to the pandemic, expressing a renewed sense of invigoration, most report poor health impacts, with several experiencing stress and exhaustion, and some contracting the virus and passing it on to their families – a predominant fear for all nurses and especially those with caring responsibilities.

James, whose mother is in her nineties and living at home, underlines these concerns:

“You’re nearly scared to go to work and then you’re nearly scared to come home in case you’re taking something back home”.

Many of the women nurses describe feeling pulled between staying on or retiring early, with over half now planning to retire early. Martina explained:

“I just don’t feel I can do this until I’m 65, Nor do I want to … whether I’ll just in another couple of years say, to hell with it, I’m hanging up my boots and I’m leaving, I don’t know. I wouldn’t like to think I will. Because … this is my 40th year working in health. And I would hate to think that I’d bow out like that.”

Gender divide

As most of the men nurses say that the pandemic does not affect their decision to retire, a clear gender divide emerges.

In terms of public recognition for the role, Martina draws attention to the futility of the practice introduced during the pandemic of clapping for healthcare workers when…

“We’ve lost staff … we’ve looked after people in spite of it …”.

A similar view is echoed by several of the nurses interviewed.

On a personal level, many nurses say that their perception of the role hadn’t changed – they would expect to do the same work regardless of the conditions. Some express an increased sense of pride in themselves and in their profession, distilled by their experience of working through the pandemic. As Bridget says:

“We can offer so much to patients … seeing nurses holding that patient’s hand, when … the family member couldn’t come in, they’re at end of life … and sitting there reassuring them … to me, that was the essence of nursing”.

New and timely insights

Our research provides new and timely insights into the impact of COVID-19 for older nurses in Ireland. Age, health and caring responsibilities represent important considerations for men and women, but more so women, if they are leaning to retiring earlier.

These findings about nurses’ responses to working through the pandemic demonstrate the need for nuanced employer and government policies that provide supports including not only improved infrastructure and increased staffing levels but also flexible work options, consideration for staff who care for vulnerable family members, and pre-retirement schemes.

In a health system that was already under resourced and under pressure prior to the pandemic, actions rather than words are now needed to recognise the indispensable work of older nurses.

  • The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Working Lives and Retirement Timing of Older Nurses in Ireland, is research by Áine Ní Léime and Margaret O’Neill and is published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

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