Christine Herbes-Sommers & Susan Sprecher

Christine Herbes-Sommers & Susan Sprecher

Seventy-five percent of Americans who are 50 and older expect to work well into the traditional period of retirement: many because they must; others by choice. Will they be able to do so?

Frank McVay, a registered nurse with WellStar Health Systems in Marrietta, Georgia, thought he would work into his seventies. Nursing, his second career, was his dream. Injured on the job four years ago, Frank called it quits earlier this year when twelve-hour shifts and lifting and moving heavy patients became too much. “I just couldn’t keep up with the demands of the job,” he says. He was 58 years old.

We, at Vital Pictures—a Boston-based film company —met Frank while researching our latest project: Coming of Age in Aging America, a multimedia, multiplatform PBS project slated for early 2014 .

Working longer sounds like a no-brainer for the active and educated new crop of retirees, but Frank’s story proves nothing is easy. Despite expectations, people continue to retire early – at age 64 for men; 62 for women. For occupations involving work that is physically demanding and mentally taxing, it’s even earlier: most nurses, for example, retire at age 55. A 2012 MetLife Mature Market reveals almost 40% of retirees cited health reasons for retiring sooner than anticipated.

Karen Mathews, the Director of Work Life Services for WellStar’s 12,000 employees, says she sees too many Franks: “Some of our best people are aging out of the jobs we rely on for quality service.” That impacts the bottom line, according to LeeAnna Spiva, WellStar’s Director of Nursing Research. WellStar’s nurses average 42 years of age —a big group heading into retirement at the same time that an aging population will increase demand for health services. According to Spiva, the company estimates that replacing an experienced nurse costs between $75,000 and $100,000. “So yes,” she says, “we’re highly motivated to hang on to the older worker.”

Since 2007, WellStar has been an incubator for ways to attract and keep the best talent all along the span of a career; a special focus is the older worker. WellStar’s initiatives include work/life programs and services that allow workers to ramp up or scale back on their work commitments in ways that fit their stage in life. One innovative program is the Nurse Research Fellowship program, which teams experienced nurses and scientists to conduct bedside research. Designed to engage nurses with new opportunities, the program also taps into the wisdom and knowledge of the experienced nurse.

Frank McVay was one of the first nurse research fellows. The results of the study he originated , “Discovering Ways That Influence the Older Nurse to Continue Bedside Practice,” were published last year in the journal Nurse Research and Practice. They confirmed his own nursing experience: The nurses surveyed were tired and stressed, but they still cared and they wanted and needed to work longer. Frank says, “We asked them what changes would make that possible. And they told us.”

The study’s findings led WellStar to take concrete actions to extend nurses’ tenure in their jobs:

  • Nurses participated in the design of a new hospital tower, suggesting features to make work more efficient and less physically taxing.
  • Nurse/patient ratios were lowered in some units.
  • WellStar is instituting a new electronic records system to streamline paperwork.
  • WellStar is investigating the purchase of ergonomically friendly equipment to lift and move patients.
  • Shorter shifts—four and eight hours—rather than 12, which is the industry standard, are on trial.

Today many companies across American business are aware of the mass exit of experience and talent that attends early retirement. WellStar is one of only a few that are taking on the hard task of rethinking work in order to extend the span of their employees’ careers.

Meanwhile, Frank continues working on his legacy. No longer a paid employee, he now volunteers his time to continue WellStar’s nurse research.

Christine Herbes-Sommers
Executive Producer,
Coming of Age in Aging America
Vital Pictures Inc

Susan Sprecher
Coming of Age in Aging America
Vital Pictures Inc