For some, work is a four-letter word. For others, it’s so much more. If you happen to be in your late 60s, you may see yourself— and many more seniors—staying in the workforce instead of retiring. Generally speaking, that’s a good thing. Experts tell us that work provides the potential for positive social interaction, as well as a support structure for everyday life.

Today, the question seniors are asking is, “How long?”—meaning at what point should they quit working. Some seniors believe “never quit” is the right response.

Janet Claussen
Photos by Isadora Pennington

“For me, it’s a matter of slowing down,” said Janet Claussen, a theology teacher at Marist School in Brookhaven who’s in her mid-60s. Claussen enjoys what she does, and has been doing it for the last 18 years. However, now she believes it’s better for her health to not work quite so hard. “I’m thinking about part-time,” said Claussen. Like most teachers, her hours extend far beyond the classroom, with grading papers and taking care of students who need that extra bit of time.

“Maybe I will continue to teach, but perhaps I can work with adults next time,” Claussen said, as she plans for a change in the not too distant future. “I like to think that I still have a lot of life in me.”

According to a recent Merrill Edge Report, “The majority—74 percent—of the Atlanta labor force say “they will continue to work during retirement whether it’s for income or just to keep busy.” Some will opt to pursue their passion.

“We’re seeing a shift in how Atlanta residents are thinking about retirement planning for their later years,” said Aron Levine, head of Merrill Edge at Bank of America. Levine meets people who have savings, but are unsure about the amount of money they need for retirement.

“We found retirement as we know it may become extinct,” Levine noted in the Merrill Edge report. “Younger generations tell us they plan to work well into retirement. That is a complete 180-degree shift for today’s attitudes toward employment.”

There are professionals whose retirement age is mandated for them. For example, airline pilots must retire by a certain age. On July 15, 2009, the FAA issued a Final Rule that lifted the mandatory retirement age of airline pilots from 60 to 65. Those are important years, according to many commercial pilots who enjoy flying and maintain proficiency into their 60s.

Claussen stated that her husband is a retired pilot who reached a mandatory retirement age a few years ago. Like his wife, he was not quite ready to leave the working world behind. He chose to help their community by overseeing maintenance at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church. The church and the director of maintenance remain in tip-top shape.

Andrea Lewis

Although she’s only in her mid-60s, Andrea Lewis isn’t sure when she’ll retire. Today, she says she enjoys being a health system administrator for Grady Health System. “Just being a nurse and being in the hospital, there’s never a dull moment,” she said.

Lewis started her Grady career in 1978. She thought about part- time work after 55, but that never happened. The plan included moving to Florida, but she said, “I love what I do too much.”

“There is something new every day at Grady,” Lewis continued. Interesting people to meet and nonstop learning are two of the reasons why she has no plans for retirement. “I just can’t seem to totally let it go,” she added with a smile.

Mike Smith was a Navy surgical nurse. But that was a long time ago. He’ll be 61 in March. He had to deal with some physical setbacks along the way, but has found a new job to do what
most nurses do—caring for people—while using his mechanical talents to repair mobile medical equipment, such as motorized wheelchairs.

Smith says he learned that medical equipment dealers like to sell the equipment, but are not necessarily interested in making repairs. There’s minimal, if any, profit margin in repairing mobility equipment.

But in Smith’s years in the Navy, and later hospital nursing,
he learned to make things work again. He provides advice by telephone when required and is quite handy with a screwdriver if he’s making a house call.

Mike Smith

Smith likes what he does because, “… it’s an opportunity to meet so many different people.” He is grateful for the ability fix equipment since his earlier career was cut short by a brain aneurysm.

Even the setback taught him to do new things. “My doctor suggested I try fly fishing,” said Smith on a telephone conversation. It helped with his hand-eye coordination, as well as depth perception, since the aneurism affected his eyesight.

His new career was launched after meeting a friend in church, who asked if he could help fix equipment for “shut-ins.” Smith stated that what’s important for him is, “Keeping my mind
sharp and interacting with people.”

According to a Pew Research article by Drew DeSilver, “older Americans work in the various sectors of 
the U.S. economy in broadly similar patterns as 
the workforce as a whole.” There are a few exceptions, he noted. For example, the tendency is not in the food sector or construction industries, but in ‘seasoned’ workers like
 those more frequently seen in management, legal, community and social service occupations.

Gretchen Pennybacker is more than special and an exception in every good way. At 82, she’s still working and loving it. She works in—and loves—food service.

Pennybacker said that her husband had Alzheimer’s disease for about 10 years and was at home. “I had a big responsibility caring for him all those years.” After he died, about two years ago, she realized that she needed something to fill the void in her life.

Gretchen Pennybacker

“I had seen someone at a Chick-fil-A at noontime. The woman was doing kind of a hostess job,” Pennybacker recalled, and added that she said to herself, “I can do that.” She stopped at a nearby Chick-fil-A where they knew her. “The manager hired me right away.”

Pennybacker is proud of her 80-plus years and mentioned that she only works two days a week. “And it’s just for 2 1⁄2 hours a day,” she said. Her role is to help during the big lunch rush.

She explained that she’s a greeter, a bus-girl or whatever they need.  “It’s a lot of fun,” she said. One reason she’s doing it is because it’s really good exercise. Another plus is that she gets to meet people from all over the place. “It’s just wonderful, because it keeps me in the loop and I really enjoy it!”

In the past, Pennybacker managed a thrift shop in Louisiana, though much of her life has been in volunteer work. However, she stated that she would begin by volunteering for a nonprofit, and most of those she volunteered for ended up hiring her.

With a top-notch attitude and great management skills, it’s easy to place someone like Pennybacker on a Chick-fil-A team.

Most experts seem to agree that working helps with self-esteem and socialization, and often brings a financial reward. At the same time, “[It] has to be the right work, in the right place, with support from colleagues and health professionals,” according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists in an article about work extension. Flexibility with schedules is key for many seniors, as well as knowing the years still offer adventure.

Judi Kanne is a public health communications consultant and contributing writer to Atlanta Senior Life.