Boomers head to nursing school seeking stability, satisfaction

Posted: Friday, November 08, 2002

NEW YORK (AP) -- Mary Darden McLeod reached several milestones in 2002: She turned 50, celebrated her 10th wedding anniversary and marked her 20th year as a university marketing professor.

McLeod also returned to school to become a nurse. It was a move she had considered for years; the combination of facing some of life's big events and last year's terrorist attacks prompted her to do it.

''After Sept. 11, I really started to think about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Teaching people to go out and make a lot of money didn't seem satisfying,'' said McLeod, who taught at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., and is now at an accelerated nursing program at Duke University.

''I felt like there were just all this signals telling me to put up or shut up,'' she said.

Some baby boomers eager for a more satisfying, stable career are entering nursing at a time when many established nurses are leaving because of mediocre pay and grueling physical and emotional demands.

McLeod was drawn to the nurturing aspect of nursing. The lure for many others is the profession's practically guaranteed employment -- the exit of disillusioned veterans has caused a severe nursing shortage, with 11 percent of hospital nursing posts currently open across the country.

The prospect of secure employment has also attracted men to the traditionally female profession.

''I wanted to get into a field that I wouldn't be downsized from,'' said Allan Puplis, 55, who lost his job as a nuclear engineer in 1996 and entered nursing school the following year. ''I didn't think so much about being a male nurse as being 49 and going back to school.''

Puplis tried unsuccessfully to find engineering work after he was laid off. ''I had three kids to support. I didn't think I could go back to school,'' the St. Joseph, Mich., resident said.

State-sponsored retraining grants helped finance Puplis' initial nursing education. Now he is working as a nurse and getting his master's degree. He earns $7,000 less than he did as an engineer but says he's much happier.

But nursing school administrators say they're concerned that older students drawn to the profession by a desire for security or to help people might not understand its many challenges. Baby boomers range from 38 to 56.

''We constantly stress how difficult the work is,'' said Rita D'Aoust, director of Accelerated Bachelor and Masters Programs for Non-Nurses at the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y. ''I look people in the eye and say 'Are you sure you want to do this?'''

Puplis says he was warned but was still shocked by life on the hospital floor. For a year he worked at a large teaching hospital where he found the bureaucracy disheartening and the physical work exhausting.

''I think because I am older, the nurses thought I should be more knowledgeable than I was and that added to the stress,'' Puplis said. Now he works at a small community hospital where he is much happier.

McLeod, who plans to work as a hospital nurse when she graduates next year, says she worries about the job being too demanding.

''Of course you have those types of concerns as an aging baby boomer. But you have to try,'' McLeod said. ''My parents are in their mid-70s and are very healthy. I hope I take after them.''

The nursing shortage pushed many colleges and universities to set up accelerated programs to make it easier for nontraditional students to enter the profession. At the University of Rochester, someone with a bachelor's degree can earn a bachelor's in nursing in one year.

Boomer students can present challenges for nursing instructors. For example, science classes can be especially difficult for people who have long forgotten how to take tests and study.

''When it comes to chemistry and biology, the students out of high school do better,'' said Ruth Davidhizar, dean of nursing at Bethel College in Mishawka, Ind. About one-third of the students in its accelerated class are baby boomers.

But boomers excel in other ways, Davidhizar said. She said their maturity makes them more understanding as they care for patients.

Baby boomers students say they often envy their younger colleagues' flexible schedules. Jayne Davis, 45, works full time as an administrative assistant at Bethany, Okla.-based Southern Nazarene University while attending nursing school there part-time. She's also married, the mother of two teen-agers and helps her father run his small business.

''I simply can't fall behind,'' Davis said. ''I don't have the luxury of cramming every thing in on the weekends.''

But Davis said she doesn't mind the hectic schedule because she has wanted to be a nurse since she was 20. She had pursued a business degree when she didn't get into a nursing program.

''I used to think I was too old to go back to school,'' said Davis who will finish her degree in 2005. ''But when I started working here I said, 'I could do this.'''

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