Maine’s looming nursing shortage offers a clear illustration of the double-edged impact of our aging population.

By 2025 — just seven years down the road — it will require 3,200 new nurses to care for a growing number of Mainers who are older than 65. And at the same time, nearly half of the state’s current nurses are already 55 or older, meaning that many will be looking to reduce their hours or even retire as the demand for their services grows.

If this sounds familiar, it should. We have heard of similar shortages projected for dentists, police officers, construction workers and many other professions. What’s different with the nursing shortage is that an arm of state government is taking it seriously and doing something about it.

The University of Maine System board of trustees approved an ambitious five-year plan last week to double the size of its nursing program, aggressively recruiting students, offering aid to students with financial need and increasing the number of locations where nursing students can get instruction.

Nurses who want to advance in the field will get help earning higher degrees, from bachelor’s to doctorates. And the program will place graduates in the parts of the state where the shortage is the greatest, ensuring that they are not left behind.

These practical, forward-looking policies are the kind of thing we should expect but don’t always get from state government. It’s not news that Maine has an aging population. But as the consequences we’ve been warned about grow closer, Maine has been slow to do anything to soften the blow. The kind of effort the university system has begun to head off a nursing shortage should already be underway in areas like long-term care, workforce development and senior housing, but as a state we have not answered the call.

The university’s nursing plan shows that all of these issues are complicated and there are no easy fixes. It calls for cooperation, not just within the campuses of the university system but also with outside organizations, that range from clinical placements with health providers in undeserved areas to early college programs in high schools, where students can earn transferable college credit and a certificate preparing them for entry level work in a health field. Some of the proposals are contingent on a positive vote on the Question 4 bond issue, making the whole state’s electorate another partner.

And even if the plan works perfectly and Maine educates an additional 400 Maine nursing graduates each year, the state would still need to attract 250 nurses a year from elsewhere to fill the gap.

There is no single cause or easy fix to the problems presented by an aging population. But the university system is providing a good example for how they need to be addressed.

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