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Golden Years

April 13, 2004 -- A piece by Laura Novak, published today as part of the New York Times' "Voices" feature, includes the observations of five older persons who have recently chosen to become nurses after retiring from other jobs. Their stories are impressive and compelling, though the item's implicit association of nursing with retirement age volunteer work--as opposed to serious careers to which ambitious individuals might devote their entire working lives--is troubling.

The piece's headline, "A Late Start in the Healing Arts: Finding a Calling After Work Is Done," could be read to suggest that nursing is a quaint sacrifice one might make after the real "work" is over, perhaps an "art," but hardly a science. The introductory paragraph compares nursing to caring for an aged spouse, noting that the recent growth in accelerated programs has made it "easier and quicker" to get a nursing degree. Of course it is encouraging that accomplished persons who have retired from one career may make a "post-middle-age transition" to nursing, and three of the five profiled nurses did become interested in nursing at least in part through volunteer work. But the headline and introduction together imply that nursing is similar to the loving but unskilled care anyone might provide to a family member--especially now that it's supposedly "easier" to get a degree--when it still requires the equivalent of years of college-level training. Indeed, the nurses themselves make clear that they found volunteer work inadequate because they could not do enough to help others.

The stories of the nurses themselves are much better than the introductory material. There is a photo of each profiled nurse, along with a caption emphasizing a positive aspect of his or her new career. Michael Greene, a 55-year-old adult nurse practitioner in San Francisco, describes how he attended Yale's nursing school after a career in finance, reclaiming a youthful desire to "take care of people" that he had moved away from after being wait-listed by medical school and burning out on a doctoral fellowship in biology decades earlier. Jean Krueger, a Northern California public health nurse, tells how she dropped out of a nursing program in 1960 to get married, but began again after raising a family and working for 22 years as a bookkeeper and auditor, receiving her B.S.N. just before her 61st birthday. Mae Liu, a 53-year-old nursing student in Oakland who considered herself retired after having been laid off from a job as an HMO administrator, is now pursuing a master's degree in "case management" that she hopes will allow her to work with babies. She describes nursing school as "intellectually demanding and all-consuming." Jacquelyn Khan, a 62-year-old Detroit woman who apparently worked for 30 years as a truant officer before becoming a nurse, now works part-time in cardiac intensive care and is about to receive her bachelor's degree in nursing. She finds that as an older person it's easy for her to "communicate with patients across social groups and ages." And Wendy Wank, a 55-year-old former documentary film editor, is now pursuing a master's degree at the University of California at San Francisco to become a "general nurse practitioner with a minor in H.I.V." She says that her age allows her to deal better with end of life issues, and that she feels "like one day of work in this job is like six months of satisfaction in my old job."

See Laura Novak's article "A Late Start in the Healing Arts: Finding a Calling After Work Is Done" in the April 13, 2004 edition of the New York Times.


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