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Retiree Janet follows her passion – back to work

Early-childhood educator Janet MacDonald in her Burnaby, B.C., classroom where she works part-time in the StrongStart program. She came out of retirement to return part-time to the work she loves.

Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

This story is part of the Working in Retirement series that looks at people who, for various reasons, choose to remain active past the traditional retirement age in today's job market. Read other stories about Jim, Marion, Henry and Sharon.

For 35 years, Janet MacDonald worked at a child-care centre at North Vancouver's Capilano University, first looking after children and later moving up to management.

When she retired in 2011 at 60, she still had as much passion for her career as when she began; she studied early childhood education after high school. In fact, she loved it so much that she decided to return part-time to the Children's Centre just two years after she officially called it quits.

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The grandmother of one explains that she felt ready to leave the work force when she did. She was managing a staff of about 20 and had 60 families enrolled at the centre, making for a significant administrative load. However, after taking time to putter in her garden and travel with her husband, she found herself wanting more.

"I wasn't pushed out; I always had this vision I would retire at 60," Ms. MacDonald, now 63, says in an interview over tea. "I finished work in August and remember being so excited in September, at the start of the school year, that everybody was going back to work except for me. The following year we went on a huge trip; we did seven weeks throughout Europe and went on a transatlantic cruise. We came home and I went, 'Now what?'"

One thing was certain for Ms. MacDonald as she approached retirement: "I was not going to be somebody who was going to stay home and clean my house."

She now works in a program called StrongStartBC, which is a play-based drop-in program for kids 5 and under. The program is staffed by qualified early-childhood educators and funded by the province. Her role is on the floor, interacting with children and their parents and caregivers, not supervisory or administrative. She works from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. five days a week.

"I love it," Ms. MacDonald says. "I love the children. I love everything about them. I love the ones who are challenging; I love all of them. It doesn't matter what they bring to me, I just work with them to meet their needs and help them do their best.

"It's such a great job," she adds. "Why, if you really love something, do you give it up completely? Why would I stop doing this? I feel like I've been rewarded. I have this little blessing."

Ms. MacDonald considers herself fortunate that she's working in her so-called golden years by choice, not necessity. She may not have the title of manager any more, but she's not bothered by any perceived downshift in status, nor does she mind having a boss who's a couple of decades younger than her. She admits she was starting to find the administrative side of her previous role tiring, whereas now she gets to be hands-on with the kids, telling stories, singing songs and playing with blocks and Play-Doh.

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"Having a younger boss doesn't faze me," she says. "Younger people bring new meaning to things; they're willing to collaborate with you. I work hard and I feel well-respected. I'm treated well. I expect to be treated well."

Research has shown that the benefits of employment among seniors go far beyond a paycheque. They include mental stimulation, social connections and a sense of fulfilment, all of which have positive effects on a person's emotional and physical well-being.

According to a study published in 2009 in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, people who started a part-time or temporary job or became self-employed after reaching retirement age were less prone to conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, lung disease, heart disease, stroke and arthritis than those who stopped working entirely. They were less likely to experience "functional decline," which refers to how sharp and capable people are when doing day-to-day activities.

The study also found that transitional employment between a long-term career and full retirement, which is known as "bridge employment," has positive psychological effects. Bridge employees scored 31 per cent higher on a mental-health scale than those who ceased working at the age of retirement.

Mark Thompson, professor emeritus in the organizational behaviour and human resources division of the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, sees the benefits of doing away with mandatory retirement. He recalls the days when forced retirement was the rule and how so many workers were devastated by it.

"I remember doing a consultancy with the RCMP," Dr. Thompson says. "Two officers had to be driven out of the office when they were 65. It was remarkable. They did not want to leave. … I know people who are unhappy because they were forced to retire. You don't want to spend your retirement feeling bad because you had to retire."

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Dr. Thompson, who still works as a consultant at 75, says that some occupations lend themselves well to "staged" retirement, such as farming. It's the kind of work that's often passed down to the next generation, allowing older workers to exit gradually – and with dignity.

"A lot of farmers don't want to give that up completely," he says. "I have a friend in Manitoba who had a farm, and he used to drive out there in the harvest season just to watch the harvest. He couldn't drive the combine any more, but he wanted to watch it. There was an emotional attachment he had to it."

While some seniors stay employed because they love what they do, many have to keep working because of finances. Commonly, Dr. Thompson says, the decision to stay in or re-enter the work force arises as a result of the financial fallout of a marital split; in other cases, the impact of the 2008-09 recession on people's portfolios has led older Canadians to brush off their résumés, as have low returns on fixed-income investments.

Then there is the weak job market. "If you retire, you may well feel your chances of coming back in are reduced," Dr. Thompson says. "It's harder for older people to get employment, there's no question about that."

For seniors seeking employment, retail and service industries are good bets, Dr. Thompson says.

"People can work 30 hours a week and supplement their income. They don't have to sacrifice all of the freedom that retirement brings."

Ms. MacDonald has found that her job has rejuvenated her, while she's also home in time to have lunch with her husband every day.

"I have a purpose," she says. "I'm getting up and doing something that I think is important, and that's valuable. To me, retirement is loving what you do."

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