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updated 1/16/2009 1:51:50 PM ET 2009-01-16T18:51:50

My previous column , about my experiences in nursing and the ongoing demand for nurses today despite the troubled economy, seems to have touched a chord. A number of nurses wrote in to share their love of the profession, but I also heard from people outside the field who are attracted to it, yet concerned that it may be too late in life for them to take it up.

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“I wish I had done it sooner,” says Janet, a 41-year-old mother of three in Milford, Conn. “I just can’t shake the feeling that I might be too old to start. Does nursing want people like me?”

Phyllis Simon wonders the same thing as she enters a licensed practical nursing program (LPNs perform under the supervision of registered nurses or doctors) at age 57: “Do you think I am too old?” she asks. “I know lots of people now are making changes at all ages.”

You’re never too old
Phyllis is right; you’re never too old to try something new. I was the same age she is now when I decided to start working as a nurse in special education schools in 1976. Granted, my nursing background was an advantage because they needed people with medical background, but I still had plenty of new and unfamiliar material to tackle. In order to get accreditation, I had to get six credits in teaching reading, for example.

I was starting over from A-B-C, literally. But I got through it, and special ed nursing was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. And if I could do it in my mid-50s in 1976, you can do it today, Phyllis!

H. Ross in Columbus, Ohio, probably isn’t as old, but still has misgivings about changing fields: “I am a recent college graduate from OSU (criminology and sociology) who feels that nursing may indeed be my true calling. Do you have any advice for people who already have a bachelor’s degree in another field, or would you recommend starting the process all over again with another bachelor’s program in nursing?”

Don’t assume that your credits aren’t applicable, H. Ross; put those criminological skills to work and do some investigating. For instance, your criminology credits might apply toward a career in forensic nursing: nurses who work with law enforcement to investigate crimes such as sexual assault, as well as treating crime victims.

Playing detective
Where should you start your detective work? Online is certainly one place. Johnson & Johnson has a site called DiscoverNursing.com that reveals the plethora of specialties within the field. In Florida, for instance, where I live, I see plenty of travel nurses, who follow patients south in the winter and north in the summer.

Another place you see nurses these days: drugstores, where certified nurse practitioners and physician assistants offer an often lower-priced alternative to doctor’s offices in treating such ailments as ear infections or administering flu shots or polio vaccinations.

But don’t be afraid to wear out some old-fashioned shoe leather too as you probe the possibilities. The nursing magazines I read are full of job fairs. Another place to go: your local hospital, where you’ll often find materials on nurse recruitment right up front in the reception area.

In fact, nurses are in such demand that many hospitals are giving review courses to people who have been out of the field a while — like reader Hollie Bamford, 60, in Alexandria, Va., who loves nursing but is daunted by the number of non-nursing-related classes she has been told she needs to tackle in order to get her BSN. “I LOVE nursing, but I have found myself somewhat stymied,” she writes.

Keep knocking on doors
Hollie, I suggest you visit a different university and get reevaluated. There are also career counselors out there who will assess your record and suggest alternatives. If one door doesn’t open for you, get out there and knock on some others!

Granted, changing careers is challenging. But people do it all the time — people like Ann Mellema in Naples, Fla., who writes that she returned to get her bachelor’s of science in nursing after 20 years, and proudly lists her credentials — RN, CCRN (critical care registered nurse), CMC (nurse practitioner), BSN — after her name. “I have been a nurse for 25 years and have enjoyed every minute of it,” she writes. “I would encourage nursing as a great career path.”

Diane Green, an RN in Massillon, Ohio, who went through a three-year diploma program in the early ’80s, agrees: “It is a rewarding profession, and a very fast-paced one.” Like me, Diane is dazzled by the technological upgrades in nursing, such as computerized charting. And, she adds, “I can pick my own schedule.”

Even if you have to take some courses or training to pursue your dream, don’t be daunted: There are a lot of aging baby boomers, and the new health programs expected to come as the Obama administration begins this week will create even more need for health services. That means there are going to be jobs in nursing for a long time to come. According to ADVANCE for Nurses magazine, the country will need 2.8 million nurses by 2020 — and there’ll be a shortage of some 250,000 of them.

So if you’re thinking about changing fields to nursing or within nursing — or even to another field altogether — my advice remains the same: Be flexible. Be persistent. And don’t sell your own experience short.

For more information about entering nursing as a profession, visit:

Kitty Schindler, 85, grew up one of 10 children of a Pennsylvania coal miner during the Depression. Now she shares her perspectives on staying afloat during challenging times with TODAYshow.com readers. If you have a question for Kitty or a tip of your own to share, send her an e-mail! To Ask Kitty, click here .


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