When elementary school teacher Mary Ann Mulhern retired in 1995, she embraced the post-working life. She volunteered at a local hospital and spent time with family and friends. In 2001, though, Mulhern decided to take a poetry writing class at the University of Windsor. It was something she had always wanted to do, but never had the time. And then everything changed.
Her teacher, successful Canadian poet John B. Lee, encouraged her to pursue poetry. Her poem about Harriet Tubman won the 2001 Freedom Festival Poetry Contest. In 2003, local publisher Black Moss Press released The Red Dress. It was a book of poems about the eight years Mulhern spent in a convent in her 20s. She has since gone on to published seven more poetry titles. This year she was named one of Windsor’s poet laureates.
"It's totally surprising to me that this happened. It really is,” she says about her writing career. “Through poetry, I’ve been able to connect with my creative energies. When I’m writing, it’s almost as if I’m in another zone. I can’t explain it, but it’s a very pleasurable place to be.”
As impressive as Ms. Mulhern’s second career may be, she’s just one of a growing number of retirees who are forgoing the typical retirement of golf, grandkids and snowbirding to pursue other kinds of passions. And then go on to do incredible things.
Doing a different retirement
Studies have found that many retirees are going back to work in retirement. They often do this to tackle the things they never got to do when they were younger. The Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging found that about 20 per cent of women retirees and 30 per cent of men chose to “unretire,” which the study defines as going back to work in retirement, usually part-time. The majority of those people surveyed said they went back because they wanted to work. Not because they needed the money.
Catherine Connelly is a professor of human resources and management at McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business. Her research focuses on non-stereotypical workers and she’s not surprised by those findings.
“Many people find purpose and meaning in their work, and it’s a structure to the week, and it’s a lot of social interaction. So, when you put that together, a lot of people don’t want to give it up,” she explains.
Many people get that same satisfaction and purpose from taking what was once a hobby to another level. Or going on some sort of over-the-top adventure. Take, for example, Florence Barron, who started running marathons when she was 59 years old. She’s now beating age-related records at 80. Or John Oldring who, in 2017 at age 64, became the second-oldest Canadian to climb Mount Everest.
With people living longer and staying healthier well into retirement, doing something different in their post-work life is easier to do these days. These types of activities are also appealing because they often come with the same kind of like-minded community that someone may have at work or at a vacation complex in Florida.
“A challenging hobby frequently has a social community associated with it, either online or locally,” says Ms. Connelly. And, she explains, this group can provide the kinds of opportunities for retirees that the workplace used to.
Adventure-seeking in retirement
Sarnia, Ont.’s Bonnie Kearns is one of those people who wanted to push herself further later in life. In 2002, she retired as a registered nurse. But she had always wanted to do aid work. At age 10, she had a dream she was travelling to remote places of the world, nursing people back to health in underserved communities.
She started volunteering with the Canadian Red Cross in 1984. But it wasn’t until she left the paid workforce that she had the time to jump into a major deployment. Her first stop? Six months as a volunteer conflict zone aid worker in a hospital in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, beginning in 2004.
“I was 58 when I went to Afghanistan,” she says. “And it’s every bit as exciting when you’re 58 as when you’re 26. So don’t think you can never get to your dream because life is in the way. If you want to do it, you will find a way to do it.”
Ms. Kearns, who now typically goes on shorter, three-month deployments, has since worked all over the world. This includes Pakistan, where she taught a group of kids who’d been injured in an earthquake a song that they all sang together for hours, despite speaking different languages. The now 72-year-old keeps taking tough volunteer assignments. She wants to connect with people across the globe and learn from other medical professionals, who are often doing extraordinary things with little resources.
What does retirement look like to you?
There’s nothing wrong with the stereotypical approach to retirement. Many people enjoy family, hobbies and travel after working hard their whole lives. But as we’re living longer, pursuing a passion or launching a successful new career can be incredibly rewarding.
It is for Ms. Kearns, who has little desire for a quiet life.
“It keeps your skills up and it keeps your mind working,” she says of her retirement plan. “If I stay home a lot, I tend to get into a bit of a funk.”
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