May 29, 2004


What astonished me about my 55-year-old patient's plans -- "I think I'll just start sliding into retirement" -- was how at odds they were from what she was about to undertake.


She was already consolidating her and her partner's two homes into a single place for them both, finally letting go of her fierce independence. She was cutting back her teaching from full- to part-time. But at the same time, she was crafting new and harder courses for her students, who were much more challenging and worthy of her effort.


Every June, there's a glut of retirement talk from many of my patients who are teachers in their 50s. Next year's roster is fleshed out, and those malevolent forces called "they" plot to move the older teachers out.


But why would any school board want to retire someone who finally has the wisdom that years of experience bring, has demonstrated the capacity to endure and has proven their flexibility amid the massive curriculum shifts, mandatory testing, parent councils and in-your-face students?


Foolish question.


But I ask the teachers anyway because their answers underscore the devaluation they feel for a profession they've dedicated their lives to. And it's not just teachers; it's nurses and, for that matter, doctors. While it's tempting to consider Freedom 55, especially if you can actually afford it, this all-grown-up professional class is at the top of their game and feel they've just begun to do their job efficiently, fluidly, effortlessly.


This attitude is clear when I hear their stories about the hard-core kids who act up, who play out the vacuum of their enormous needs in the classroom, who can't sit, and won't speak up, but who can sure lay waste the teaching plans of their harassed teacher.


How have the years taught them to react? They shrug. Not just at a student acting out, but at the choices that guide their next actions as well.


They calculate how many more years their own kids will need support after high school, how many years remain on their mortgage, what their real monthly income will amount to. And don't forget those glorious benefits, especially the ones that cover medications, whose costs are projected to rise astronomically as the largest retirement population Canada has ever known ages over the next 30 years.


Two of my most active teachers are over 70; one is over 80. Official retirement came and went for them. Yet one still teaches six days a week, partly in school music programs, but she's equally devoted to private lessons for students who she notes are "doing good things." She acknowledges that she's doing good things as well, especially since her five-year-old granddaughter is likely to move a thousand miles across the country and spending more time with this girl is the only carrot that would let her tolerate any change in her schedule.


As for the octogenarian, every year as she negotiates her contract, she wonders if she isn't perhaps too old for the task. Her incentive is the conferences she can attend around the globe as an academic, presenting papers in a language she has recently learned, Spanish.


Her question to me echoes the one she hears from her colleagues: Am I able to go? And always I schuss her out the door, Imodium and other travellers' aids in tow.


But for many single parents, late bloomers and career shifters whose agendas have left them without benefits or retirement plans, any notion of retirement is simply not an option. It's here that the need to work and the right to work fuse, because it's here also that the pleasures and sanctions of mandatory retirement come to bear.


Many newly minted seniors are okay with shifting over from an income to a pension. They've planned to lose those juicy health benefits, so their loss isn't a big deal; they're relieved to reduce their hours worked in return for some well-earned leisure.


But more and more of my patients are annoyed about having no choice about staying in what are often very senior positions. Still, as one of my patients noted when she was approached to be the test case for challenging mandatory retirement at her local hospital, she wasn't afraid she would lose, rather that she would win and there would be just too much work involved in launching such a case.


Contrast her with Myrna Mather, one of those teachers who is stirring up her own version of a ruckus as she passes into what she calls the Age of the Crone. In the short documentary that profiled her work when she accepted a YWCA Women of Distinction Award last week in Toronto, Myrna was first seen revving up her Harley-Davidson motorcycle, dressed for the job in neat biker leathers, and in the next sequence, banging away with her drumming group -- two activities designed to raise eyebrows as much as consciousness.


In a poll released last week for Investors Group of Winnipeg, Decima Research noted that 33 per cent of those polled now oppose mandatory retirement. Now, this may not seem notable compared with the 36 per cent planning to take early retirement, but it represents a 13-point increase from the last poll done in 1996.


Given that the average age of skilled workers is now 57, and that in just six years, by 2010, more Canadians will be over 65 than under 5, most policymakers are beginning to realize the importance of keeping this aging pool of workers doing just that. Even though today there are six workers for every retiree, that is set to tip to three for every retiree by 2040, and at age 65, what we can all look forward to is being around for still another generation.


That's a very long time to think about living on a pension, let alone living as actively and as well as we do today, medicated to the hilt to ensure our continued well-being. The same poll also revealed that most Canadians would rather work for themselves and not be employees as they move through their working years, managing their own time, setting their own conditions one job contract after another.


All this speaks to a profound and growing change about age and work.


The Canada Pension Plan, with its payout of retirement savings at the age of 65, was first introduced in 1965. But our world has changed profoundly since then.


Given what I hear in the examining room and see on the park bench, perhaps now is the time to call it a day.

Dr. Jean



Doctor. Writer. Athlete.

Advocate. Adventurer.