Exit Strategy

Jan. 21, 2015
No panic! Just plan out what you would like to do in retirement after years of dental hygiene

No panic! Just plan out what you would like to do in retirement after years of dental hygiene

BY Cathleen Terhune Alty, RDH, BA

Retirement. The word conjures many images. Some see exotic destinations. Some see a never-ending golf course. Others see how completely unprepared they are to avoid the oncoming train wreck of too much time and too little money. Have you contemplated your own exit strategy from dental hygiene? What will retirement look like for you?

Retirement issues are a concern that the entire baby boom generation is facing. Probably the number one concern is financial - how can I keep a roof over my head and food on the table without working? Unfortunately, as dental hygienists, many of us are not covered by any kind of financial retirement plan through our employers. Only through diligent savings to a 401K, SEP or IRA - or a spouse's retirement or pension - has money been set aside for retirement. Many hygienists "retire" to a second career because of occupational injuries, schedule downsizing, layoffs, or lack of dental hygiene positions. As wages fall and living expenses rise, less income is available to save. Even those fortunate to have successfully planned for retirement are considering what the transition to this new phase of life will be like, as the baby boomers approach their so-called golden years.


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Some people have sounded the alarm claiming the retiring hordes of freeloading boomers will completely consume Social Security and collapse the economy. They cite boomer history of living beyond their means, not planning ahead or saving enough money to retire without government assistance. Economic calamity dropped the values of personal retirement accounts, and company pension plans are rare, so some retirement-age people won't have the financial stability to stop working or they will require government assistance to survive. Some boomers recoil in horror with the thought of nothing to do and no structure to their days. Others are exhausted by a lifetime of working and are miserable with the thought of having to work until death retires them.

Faced with two unappealing choices, new options are being created. Since baby boomers have habitually questioned the status quo, the concept of retirement appears to be in the early stages of being rewritten. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 40% of people age 55 and older either have jobs or are looking for jobs, which is the highest level in decades. Age Wave Research says 72% of people over age 50 plan to work in their "retirement age." Another study found that within two years of retirement, 25% of people go back to work, not due to financial reasons, but because they miss it.

With healthier lives and greater longevity, many retirement-eligible people who have some financial security want to continue contributing to the economy and to the greater good of humanity. It's a search for money and meaning - but with freedom and flexibility. Achieving this requires rewriting the traditional "find-a-warm-place-to-wait-for-the-end-of-life" retirement script.

Not everyone is happy about the change. Gen Xers and Millennials cry foul, saying boomers staying on the job take away the jobs the next generation wants to own. Younger hygienists attack seasoned veterans and tell them to retire so they can have their jobs. However, if remaining in the workplace keeps retirement-eligible people productive, healthy, and contributing to the system instead of draining it, doesn't that make the solution clear? We need more jobs so everyone who wants to work can work and make a living wage.

While some hygienists switch to nursing, finance, or other careers, there are some who decide to volunteer or work with a nonprofit to give back to the community. Some hygienists have found new passions by working completely outside of dentistry, but still rely on the skills they honed over years of patient interactions.

Cheryl Csiky, RDH, retired from dental hygiene in 2014 to work with Gridlock Ministries, a nonprofit organization helping to end international human trafficking. Changes in career became necessary for Cheryl when a chronic medical issue made hygiene practice very painful. "I think we all sometimes sacrifice ourselves for the well-being of the patient," she said. "I am not sure which came first for my ergonomics, the disease or the poor posture. I found myself easily fatigued with patients who were difficult to scale, but not qualified for the lengthy scale and root plane appointment."

A pain management course opened up her eyes that her medical condition could actually be fallout from past physical abuse. "As a regular woman with three kids, we are superheroes all the time," Csiky said. "I was holding in all that went wrong in my life and living it like I was okay. At least I thought I was, but my body was obviously telling me much differently. So I came into my office and asked to speak with my general dentist. Now we are family at this point, and I could hardly hold it together. I let him know my history of abuse and said, 'I need to take care of whatever PTSD I am carrying.' Hygiene was definitely not helping, sitting on a seat with not enough water breaks and the every-three-day bathroom break. I needed space to heal," she said.

"So I dropped hours every six months to financially see if I could make it, and I did. I started realizing through awareness seminars at my church that exploitation of teens and trafficking is a common issue. I started serving and volunteering with organizations with safe houses for minors who are trafficked and teens and young adults at risk. I received the opportunity by treating a lady who wanted to start a human trafficking ministry. So I started small, about once a month."

Working with this population, Csiky began experiencing flashbacks of her own abuse. She found that her story had similarities to some of their stories and decided to confide her secret. "I rode home with a friend who volunteers with me and said, 'Hey, I found out I was exploited.' After that moment, I started breathing a different passion. At the same time, I was able to read and relate to the others due to all the social skills obtained working with patients."

Resources to think about as retirement approaches

• Encore.org - "Second acts for the greater good"

• Biosphere-expeditions.org - Wildlife conservation

• Shiftonline.gov - "Navigating midlife transitions"

• Retiredbrains.com - "Resources for boomers and seniors"

• Projects-abroad.org - Volunteer service projects

• Vimi.org - Volunteers in Medicine Institute

• Volunteermatch.org - "Bringing good causes and good people together"

• Getinvolved.gov - National and community service

• The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife by Encore.org founder and CEO, Marc Freedman, issues a call to "accept the decades opening up between midlife and anything approximating old age for what they really are: a new stage of life, an encore phase." He writes, "We are in the position to make a monument from what used to be the leftover years, a second chance for people of all stripes to ascend the ladder of contribution and fulfillment, and an opportunity for society to "grow up" along with its population. This amounts to nothing less than changing the pattern of lives, and with it the nature and possibilities of every stage along the way. "It's time for a shift - a shift in thinking and in culture, in social institutions and public policies, a shift from what worked in the past to what can carry us into the future."

• Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing The Way We Think About Work, community, and the Good Life, a book released in September 2014 by economic writer Chris Ferrell discusses the dilemmas of boomers rediscovering themselves by continuing to work beyond typical retirement age. Ferrell sees the life and work experiences of baby boomers ready to be tapped for an encore career in ways that benefit all of society.

Csiky decided to work with dental offices, offering her expertise of what to look for in and around the workplace for abuse and human trafficking. "Also, many dental offices are in strip malls, etc., where a lot of fronts are for brothels of nonlicensed massage parlors, nail salons, cleaners, all those no-name areas. I became more and more involved and saw the need for change. I would never be here though without the ramp of hygiene."

Many organizations have sprung up to offer information and assistance to those looking to remain active in retirement. AARP, Encore.org, Serve.gov, RetiredBrains.com, ProjectsAbroad.org, and GlobalVolunteerNetwork.org, to name a few, are a mouse click away and offer details for helping people find a place to use their passion.

Encore.org, whose slogan, "Second acts for the greater good," stresses using the skills you have to do something new for the good of mankind. They provide research and information to help connect people with what they term encore career: "jobs that combine personal meaning, continued income and social impact - in the second half of life." Encore.org's website has vast amounts of information and resources for anyone contemplating a change in workplace. Of course, it's easier to work as a volunteer or accept a low-paying nonprofit job when you have retirement funds to keep yourself afloat.

So many retirement experts are now preaching if you want to continue working and can do it comfortably and competently, you should continue working. If disability or lack of working hours is a problem, find something else to do that fits your circumstances. If retiring, consider giving back by volunteering either domestically or around the world. Asking yourself, "What do I want to be doing when I'm done with hygiene?" and then making a plan for an exit strategy will give you peace of mind as well as help you form financial planning goals. Think about how you can take your existing skills and move into a new career or business opportunity for the next phase of life.RDH

Cathleen Terhune Alty, RDH, is a frequent contributor who is based in King George, Va.