Is Retirement an Ending or New Beginning?

By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA

Can this career be saved? This is an ongoing series about real nurses, real challenges, and real solutions.

At age 68, Greta (not her real name) was preparing to retire from school nursing. She had spent 30 years at the same job and had an additional 15 years of prior nursing experience.

“Honestly, I’m sad to leave nursing behind,” she lamented. “It’s such a part of who I am. I’d love to keep my hand in; I’m a caregiver by nature. You can’t just shut that off. But it’s time for me to move on and make room for the younger nurses. Maybe I’ll look for a job at my local library or as a school van driver.”

“Why don’t you find a part-time nursing job if you want to stay connected and continue working?” I suggested.

“What could I possibly do after so many years in one place?” Greta asked. “I don’t want to go back to the hospital, and I don’t want to work so hard anymore. I don’t even necessarily want a regular job. Impossible, right?”

“Not at all,” I answered. “I have several ideas for you.”

I told her I’d met quite a few nurses who had “retired.” After a few years, they’d felt a pull to stay involved in nursing on some level — either as a volunteer or as an employee. Because everyone is living and working longer, retirement is being redefined. There’s only so much leisure time many of us can stand!

Greta and I discussed how important it was for her to stay connected to her profession, whether or not she was working. I suggested that she join and get active in her state nurses association (SNA). I mentioned that many SNAs have coalitions for retired nurses because of that desire to stay connected. And many SNAs offer reduced dues for retired nurses.

If Greta wanted more hands-on work, I suggested that she contact her local public health nurse (city or county) and make herself available as needed to give flu shots, act as a coordinator or consultant to local schools, or help out at health fairs, public screening programs, and community education events.

When I asked Greta about her educational background, she replied, “I got my BSN a long time ago. I contemplated getting a master’s degree many times, but I never got around to it. There’s no point now since I’m retiring.”

I told Greta that I disagreed completely. First, I pointed out that education is a gift you give yourself. Education keeps you young and makes you feel alive.

Greta was skeptical. With a quizzical look on her face, she asked, “Do you really think I should even consider going back to school?”

“Absolutely,” I replied. “This is the perfect time in your life to go back. You’ll have the time to focus on your studies and enjoy your classes. Most students are harried — trying to juggle work, family, and school and having to rush to complete assignments. You’d have the luxury of being able to devote energy to the process without excessive demands on your time.”

She still needed some convincing, so I reminded her that 68 is still young by today’s standards. “Even if you never work again,” I told her, “higher education will expand your mind and enrich your life. There’s even research out there showing that those who stay actively engaged in learning lose fewer brain cells and stay sharp mentally while they age. Education also gives you confidence. Many people don’t reach their peek or hit their stride until later in life. Education supports personal growth, creativity, self-confidence, and self-actualization.”

Greta’s skepticism began to fade, and a twinkle appeared in her eyes. “I always thought of education as strictly related to career advancement,” she said. “But you’ve given me something to think about.”

I suggested that she consider enrolling in a master’s-level college course to see how it went. Eight months later, Greta retired from school nursing and enrolled in two college courses. “I decided to ease my way in rather than make any big commitments,” she said. “So far, so good. While it’s scary going back to school at my age, it’s also energizing.”

Greta is also working part time in a local blood bank and occasionally volunteering with her local public health department. Both allow her great flexibility with her schedule.

“I’m meeting new people and learning new things, but I still can travel and spend time with friends and family,” she said. “My retirement wasn’t really an end: It’s the beginning of a new phase of life and career. Once a nurse, always a nurse!”

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