Nursing studies

Why age is no barrier to becoming a nurse

Mature students have much to offer in a profession where the boundaries are ‘limitless’

Older nursing students can look forward to diverse career opportunities, while enriching the profession with their life experience

The career pathways in nursing can be attractive to mature entrants Picture: iStock

More people than ever in their late 30s, 40s and 50s are starting their training to become nurses.

Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service this autumn show a sharp increase in the number of over-35s embarking on nursing degrees up 37% on last year.

A career that offers constant career progression

This age group now accounts for a fifth of all new nursing students, a trend that could continue as the COVID-19 pandemic raises the profile of the profession.

Nichola Ashby, head of professional learning and
...

Older nursing students can look forward to diverse career opportunities, while enriching the profession with their life experience

The career pathways in nursing can be attractive to mature entrants Picture: iStock

More people than ever in their late 30s, 40s and 50s are starting their training to become nurses.

Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service this autumn show a sharp increase in the number of over-35s embarking on nursing degrees – up 37% on last year.

A career that offers constant career progression

This age group now accounts for a fifth of all new nursing students, a trend that could continue as the COVID-19 pandemic raises the profile of the profession.

Nichola Ashby, head of professional
learning and development at the RCN

‘Nursing has really raised its head among the public, at the moment,’ says RCN head of professional learning and development Nichola Ashby.

‘They are seeing that, yes, it is about being a caring profession, but it’s also about skills and knowledge and the constant career progression you can undertake through nursing.

‘That’s attractive to people because it’s about having a career route – a pathway that connects you through lots of different areas across healthcare, and it’s global, not just something in the UK,’ she adds.

It is often life experiences that inspire people to pursue nursing as a career

One of the reasons people switch to nursing later on in their working lives is they have gone through something that has given them a deeper understanding of what nurses do, Dr Ashby says.

‘Nursing is a profession where the boundaries are limitless’

Jose Rodrigues, who was 58 when he completed his nursing degree

‘People have life experience that may make them stop and think,’ she says. ‘We all access the health service, and people have children, or relatives who unfortunately aren’t well. Or they may be unwell themselves, and their experience of the health service and independent sector gives them more perception of what nursing is all about.’

Many come into the profession as a second or even third career, often bringing with them advanced qualifications in completely different areas. Others come to nursing having worked in different roles elsewhere in the health service.

‘I felt so empowered at university. Now, there is no end to learning’

Jose Rodrigues was inspired by seeing
the impact of compassionate care

It was a family health emergency almost 17 years ago that led Jose Rodrigues to consider nursing as a profession.

His six-year-old daughter had a ruptured appendix and he can still remember his first encounter with his daughter’s nurse, particularly how caring and empathetic she was on one of the most difficult days of his life.

‘She was so compassionate,’ he says. ‘Not just with my daughter, but with me as well. That really touched me and was the spark that ignited my love for the nursing profession.’

When his daughter was out of danger, Mr Rodrigues went to the hospital chapel where he reflected on the difference the nurse had made. It was at that point he decided to become a nurse himself one day.

Nursing ambition finally achieved

Last year, he achieved that aim, graduating from Middlesex University and going on to become a nurse in the emergency department at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London at the age of 58.

‘I want to help people who are in pain,’ says Mr Rodrigues. ‘I have learned nursing is a profession where the boundaries are limitless. You can do so much with the patient, their family and friends, and with your colleagues. It is just immense.

‘The profession gives me so much,’ he adds. ‘It gives me the opportunity to touch other people’s lives and do something good, to make a difference.’

Rich life experience can empower students embarking on nursing studies in midlife Picture: iStock

In his last year at university, Mr Rodrigues was named adult nursing student of the year. He is full of praise for programme leader Julie Moody, who encouraged and supported him to use his life experience in his studies.

‘That’s why I felt so empowered,’ he says. ‘From now on, there is no end to learning.’

Mr Rodrigues wants to go on to do a masters’ degree and a PhD and would love to teach others what he has learned.

I was daunted to start with, but not now – I believe in myself

He admits it was a little daunting starting his studies in a cohort of students mostly in their late 20s or early 30s, but that feeling soon melted away. ‘I don’t have that feeling now because I know I can do it,’ he says.

His advice to those embarking on studies in midlife is not to be put off by the fact they are older than many of their fellow students.

‘If you believe in yourself, have self-confidence and resilience, you can do it, you can excel,’ he says. ‘Don’t think that age is a barrier – age is just a number.’

Older nursing students bring a sharp focus to learning

Dr Ashby believes these older entrants bring something particularly valuable to the profession and to the student experience.

‘They hugely enrich it and are dedicated to learning,’ she says. ‘When I work with mature students, I find they are really focused on what they want to achieve and on their learning.

‘They bring maturity, life experience and dedication, which enriches mixed groups,’ she adds. ‘We do a lot of group working in nursing, and if you have diversity across that group through ethnicity or age, it enhances the learning experience for everyone.’

Scott Doughty

Tips for coping – a mature student’s quick survival guide

Advice from RCN student committee northern representative Scott Doughty, a third-year nursing student at the University of Sunderland

  • If you need help or have problems with academic issues start with university resources, including your lecturers and student union. This should be your first port of call
  • For practical advice on issues such as childcare, finance, and study support, go to student support services for information
  • You can get peer support by joining your university’s nursing society, where you will find people who are going through the same things as you. And RCN forums cover a range of issues and specialisms
  • For guidance on practice familiarise yourself with the Nursing and Midwifery Council code and visit the RCN website. If you have non-academic issues relating to your practice as a nursing student, you can contact your student ambassador.
  • If you need help because you are struggling make sure you ask for it. Get the support you need to look after your physical and mental health

RELATED: Student finance – what you need to know before you start your nursing degree

Family responsibilities and the physical demands of nursing

That’s not to say it’s all plain sailing. Taking on this level of study is a big commitment at any age, but with older students, the chances of them having more responsibilities, such as looking after children or older relatives, are greater. It is also physically challenging work that can be exhausting at times.

Leaving behind another career and taking on something new requires a lot of thought, says Dr Ashby, and mature students do not enter into it lightly.

‘These people have researched it when they come through, and they really want it,’ she says.

Flexible approach to a nursing degree – a route in for people with commitments

For those considering going into nursing who might find traditional degree courses difficult to access because of personal commitments, blended learning degrees will be offered at seven universities in England from January 2021.

The degree will be delivered predominantly online, although students will still spend 50% of their time on placements in a variety of health and care settings.

Health Education England director of innovation and transformation Patrick Mitchell says: ‘This approach will enhance the profile of nursing students by encouraging mature students into the profession and providing a more flexible route into the profession for those with caring responsibilities.

‘It will also improve the technological skills and confidence of nurses.’


Yvonne Martin is a freelance journalist

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