Recession halts nursing shortage for now

In retirement, Susan Frye looked forward to cruising the high seas, spending more time in her garden and resting her weary body from two demanding decades of work as a registered nurse.

The physical and emotional demands of the job lead most registered nurses to retire in their 50s. Frye, at 63, could have retired years ago. But her body remained strong. So did her love for working in the neonatal intensive care unit at Sutter Memorial Hospital.

Then the economy soured, and her spirit was suddenly as deflated as her nest egg.

"By October and November of last year, the economy was just getting too scary," she said. "Now, my retirement plans are in a state of flux."

The recession has presented a peculiar silver lining for the health care industry by slowing retirement plans for a generation of nurses. Their departure from the profession could further deepen the industry's chronic nursing shortage.

For years, hospitals across the country have braced for an exodus.

The average age of a working nurse in California is 47, with 45 percent over the age of 50, according to the California Institute for Nursing and Health Care.

More than one in 10 registered nurses working for Sutter Health Sacramento Sierra Region is over 60 years old, suggesting an imminent surge in retirements.

"People aren't retiring because of the economy. All of a sudden, when the economy turns around, they're all going to leave," said Anette Smith-Dohring, the work force development manager for the regional health system.

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