By Cathleen Terhune Alty, RDH

Retirement is not a word in my vocabulary

Feb. 1, 2012
As baby boomers age, they are challenging the idea of retirement. Boomers are enjoying healthier lives as medical technology intervenes ...

As baby boomers age, they are challenging the idea of retirement. Boomers are enjoying healthier lives as medical technology intervenes with the onset of aging. Some prefer to continue working because they are finally at the top of their position’s salary level. Many have valuable skills that have not been passed on to the next generation. Certainly the stock market collapse in 2007 caused many retirement portfolios to look so bleak that the idea of retirement became a dream. Whatever the reason, it appears that boomers are shunning voluntary retirement and continuing to work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics claim the number of seniors in the labor force has increased 60%, and estimates say that by 2018, 11 million workers will be 65 or older, up from 6.5 million today.

Dental hygiene is no different. Although physically demanding, some hygienists find continued career happiness working well past retirement age. Irma Morrison, RDH, has been a hygienist for 55 years, and at age 75 is still practicing part-time and volunteering one day a week at the local hospital. Here is her remarkable story in her own words.

“I love dental hygiene, and it has always been good to me. I’ve worked in the swankiest Central Park South offices in New York, with the U.S. Army, and in numerous practices in beautiful Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I’ve worked both full- and part-time, and I’ve always kept my license in my back pocket to take out whenever I need it. It’s been over 50 years since I graduated dental hygiene school, and I’m not ready to give up dental hygiene. Not just yet.

“I grew up in the East Village in New York, and I’m sad to say I always had bad teeth. My mother took me to the dentist regularly, but by the time I was a teen I had a mouthful of amalgam. It was my dentist who suggested dental hygiene as a career, and it turned out to be a lucky thing for me as a patient as well. Otherwise I think I’d be wearing dentures instead of having a mouthful of beautiful porcelain crowns.

“While nursing was my first choice, dental hygiene won out on a very practical note. There was a great two-year course at New York City Community College in Brooklyn, and I was in a hurry. I also wanted a profession I could rely on. Wow, has it ever fit that requirement! I have an 8 mm movie showing us at graduation in long white starched dresses looking like Florence Nightingales, and of course in white caps with our new colors — gold for the school and purple for dental hygiene. We all look beautiful and happy.

“My first job was working for one of my professors from college in a very fancy New York office. I wore starched dresses, white shoes and stockings, and my cap very proudly. Central Park South, which is 59th Street at the southern end of Central Park, is one of the most elite addresses in Manhattan. The office was on the 19th floor overlooking the park. We served tea and coffee to patients while they were waiting. It was very elegant.

“A year later, in 1957, my husband was drafted, and the Army Dental Clinic at Fort Gordon, Georgia, hired me, and I worked there until 1959. That was certainly a change of pace. I learned a lot about segregation in the South, which was quite a change from New York City. I had the nicest black man who cleaned my unit and was so friendly, but he would not call me by my first name. That wasn’t proper! Augusta was a very segregated town, and that was hard to live with.

“When we returned to New York I answered an ad in the New York Times, and amazingly found myself back on the 19th floor on Central Park South in a very exciting practice. The dentist, who did only bridgework, had his own gold and porcelain lab right in the office, and he saw patients from all over the world. He had sleepover facilities for people coming to the office from out of town. Some would arrive on Monday and stay all week until their work was complete. A cook and maid provided all the amenities. The employees would have lunch together every Friday in the office, and the doctor would go over the schedule for the week and discuss each case. Our meal was served in the dining room, and it was quite elegant.

“I left that job when I became pregnant with my first child and moved out to Long Island to raise my family, one son and two daughters. I didn’t come back to work for 15 years. But while I was busy raising children, I always renewed my license. You never know.

“Sixteen years later that day came. Going through a divorce in the ’70s, I needed to get back to work, and there were no courses available to help me get up to speed. So I called a local hospital that I knew had a dental clinic and offered to volunteer. That really helped me feel more confident. But BIG changes had occurred in the profession. There were no more white uniforms, and of course everyone wore gloves and masks, which was all new to me. I took a yearlong course at Columbia for perio, which helped me tremendously. And finally, the courses offered as the requirements for maintaining a license had changed. When it became necessary to take CEUs, a whole new world of education became available, and there were lots of things to learn. That really helped me become familiar again. I called my old professor and miracles can happen — he hired me on the spot. So there I was, back in Central Park South, only this time I was wearing pants outfits, a nice change.

“I met my second husband, and after a couple of years decided to join him in our own business involving computer education. So I hung up my ‘whites’ for a few years. When we moved to Bucks County, Pennsylvania in 1985, we hand-built our house in the woods and led an active life that included running our business, kayaking, swimming, weight training, and visiting our four kids and three grandchildren.

“I received a Pennsylvania license by accreditation and decided that it might be nice to work part-time, so I did some temp assignments until I found a small country practice that needed a hygienist only two days a week. That kept me busy for the next 17 years until a hip operation made me think about retiring. However, after getting back into shape from my hip surgery, I found that I missed hygiene too much. So now I work one day a week for a terrific practice in a small country town, and I don’t expect that to change for a long time. I enjoy it too much! As I said at the beginning, hygiene has always been good to me.” RDH

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

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