I retired as a faculty member at the University of Washington after 36 years in the anthropology department. When I thought about what to do next, naturally I thought about what I had been doing for so many years as an active researcher and teacher – and put a new twist on it.
I had taught a class on the topic of end-of-life decisions, how American death practices compare with those of other peoples. I found that my students took the class because they had questions about real-life experiences, issues that had not been addressed by family or religious figures. While their problems were not specifically “solved,” people left my office feeling they had a different perspective or renewed hope.
As I approached retirement, I thought a year of chaplaincy would be a chance to see if what I had written was a lot of hot air. It gradually occurred to me that maybe, in a hospital setting, I would find a useful thing to do.
I received my training at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, which is affiliated with the University of Washington. I was the old geezer. All the others were young divinity students. It was fun to work with them.
One of my happiest cases involved a woman having heart surgery that she greatly feared. I was asked to spend time with her prior to the procedure. After the surgery, she was ecstatic and told her gathered family and friends what a great chaplain I was! The saddest was two stillbirths on the same day, one expected and followed by a large family gathering. The other unexpected – the woman’s husband never appeared; I just showed up and asked if there was anything I could do.
For those considering an encore career, I suggest you first consider what you know and what skills might be useful in other situations. I wanted to stay active, in some way, in my field, not just walk away from a lifetime of learning. So far, it has led to several post-retirement publications. It is also, in part, an identity issue. While I also like to do a bit of traveling and gardening, if that is all retirement was to be, it would get boring fast.
I continue as a volunteer chaplain through my church. It’s about the people I meet, the variety of unlikely circumstances I learn about, and the feeling that maybe I made somebody a little more comfortable that day.
(Read more about the University of Washington’s Encore Initiative.)