SALT LAKE CITY — For decades, Denis Thurgood built homes, usually for senior citizens, until he decided to retire at age 65.
It didn't take the Layton man, now 67, very long to wonder if he'd made the right choice. Six months in, with a few if-only-I-had-time activities completed, he took a part-time job. He's no longer the boss, like he was at Utah Builders, but he's OK with that. He's still accomplishing in a different way his goal of helping older people live where they want.
So these days he gladly washes their dishes, sorts through their closets and cupboards and drives those who can't to doctors and grocery stores or to lunch with their pals.
"I was raised on a farm and taught to work every minute of every day or I felt like I wasn't doing what I should. And I always loved seniors. I built homes for them — homes they could stay in their whole life," said Thurgood.
Now, he works for Home Instead Senior Care, putting in about 30 paid hours a week providing respite to family members while helping old or frail people with their nonmedical tasks.
Thurgood is part of what government data indicates to be a growing wave of older workers around the country who tried retirement and didn't care for it, deciding to "unretire." He's far from alone. A 2017 survey by the RAND Center for the Study of Aging said more than half of retired workers would return to work if the conditions were right. And nearly 40 percent of those 65 and older who are working had retired, before going back to work.
Experts say a large number of older people who left the work force will return to it because they underestimated how much money they'd need to make ends meet after retiring. Others, like Thurgood, unretire because they're bored or want to find meaning and mental stimulation in second careers.
Thurgood has a heart to serve others, especially the elderly. But he doesn't take himself too seriously. "I just wanna go out with a long string of moral victories," he quipped.
Not so uncommon
The urge to reinvent oneself and get back to work is not uncommon, according to Laura Polacheck, communications director of AARP Utah. She said people find themselves with too much free time.
"They get isolated. They get depressed with no routine and interaction. We know social interaction is one of the most important things you can do to keep your brain fit," she said. "That's harder when you're not working, but people develop life skills they can repurpose."
Seniors stepping back into work also typically have much to offer in terms of experience, a good work ethic and maturity that lets them pick up skills they might lack.
No one knows exactly how many Americans have retired, then went back to work in the same or different careers. But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said about 40 percent of people over 55 — early retirement age — were working or actively looking for work in 2014, the latest year included in the 2017 report. The bureau expects those 64 and older will be the fastest-growing segment of the working or looking-for-work population at least through 2024.
Home Instead is a senior care company that often welcomes employees like Thurgood who chose to dive back into the work force, usually part time and in vastly different work than they'd done before, said Rick Davis, owner and general manager of the company's franchise in Salt Lake and Bountiful.
"A lot of people who go back into the work force, not necessarily in the capacity they had before, like the structure and regularity of having a part-time job," said Davis. His experience with unretirees is they "want to be caregivers. Many have been fairly successful and it's not a matter of money. They like serving others for the fulfillment; it provides something useful for them to do."
Companies like Home Instead benefit from the eagerness of older workers to care for others, said Davis.
In May, the senior care company's corporate office decided to explore the trend, surveying both people who had left the workforce to retire and those who were coming back in. The "Unretire Yourself" website documents what they found: 53 percent of those still working but looking to retire within five years say they're somewhat or very likely to return to work after retirement, while 41 percent of those who retired and subsequently returned to work figured in advance that they might do so.
Close to 80 percent of those poised to retire said retirement has changed, with returning to work one of the big differences. A similar number said they wanted their next move to have meaning and impact, expressing interest in different jobs or volunteering in ways that help others.
"While financial stability proved the most selected motivator for both groups, the most interesting difference was revealed in their secondary selected motivations," said the report. "Those who have unretired have a more realistic view, returning to the workplace in order to find fulfillment and have human contact. Meanwhile, those pending retirement suggest a more idealistic view, citing interests such as new challenges or finding fulfillment."
Most of the unretired (65 percent) and those planning to retire soon (68 percent) will change fields. And more than one-fifth will go back to work because they found something "meaningful" to do.
Others may take up jobs because they're worried if they spend all their time playing, they'll lose their mental sharpness, said Davis, who's on a second career himself. He took early retirement from a marketing position for General Motors to help his wife grow and manage their Home Instead franchise.
AARP has over the years tried to help seniors figure out their encore careers with articles, workshops and other offerings, said Polacheck.
The membership organization also highlights companies that welcome and bolster those who take a break from the workplace and then want back in, like Goldman Sachs' paid eight-week "Returnship." That program's for people who left employment for two years or more for a variety of reasons. AARP Foundation's Back to Work 50+ has partners that include colleges and employment services, and many companies like Walmart and Home Depot also hire senior citizens. Plenty of seniors also become consultants in their specialties when they retire.
A new direction
Thurgood's new career seems to embody advice from Joe Hearn, who writes on IntentionalRetirement.com that people should "Retire to something, not from something.
On a recent sunny October day, Thurgood and Toby Pingree went for a walk, as they do several times a week. Thurgood walked close but not too close to Pingree, a retired certified public accountant who got his MBA from Harvard and has always been active both physically and mentally, though at age 85, he's slowing down. Still, he's clearly fiercely independent.
They were a picture: Thurgood in a bright purple shirt, Pingree in a plaid shirt pushing a red-and-black walker with wheels. As they walked, Thurgood held the end of a blue belt that was wrapped around Pingree's waist to help steady him; he has neuropathy in his feet and sometimes falls.
Thurgood is a good-natured insurance policy against a spill: 6-foot-3, 220 pounds and steady as can be. That's why he's able to tell his charges, "Nothing bad's going to happen to you while I'm here. You're not going to fall. No one is going to hurt you."
Thurgood helps Toby's wife Phyllis with physical chores that would be otherwise challenging. "Denis will help me do anything," she said. "He told me he would love to wash my windows. He helped with a flood in our basement last week."
He's spent the past few days helping her sort out the old office so that they can hang up the accountant's awards and bring some exercise equipment upstairs. Pingree's a self-proclaimed exercise nut. He played basketball for decades and ran a marathon. He swam in the Master Swim Program in California, where the Pingrees used to live. He rode his bike up mountains and down. So even now, it's not uncommon for the two men to cover three miles in a walk, said Thurgood.
The Pingrees were raised in Utah and both went to the University of Utah, but moved away for Pingree's career and lived primarily in Walnut Creek, California. They moved back two decades ago when their own parents were frail. They have six grown kids who all live somewhere else.
"Toby would be very lonely and unhappy if he could not get outside our home," Phyllis Pingree said. "I have seen that along the way with care. We need to keep him socially alive." Thurgood's a guy who likes the task and enjoys taking Pingree to see his friends — most recently they had lunch with one of Pingree's pals in Orem — or to run errands or just amble. They get along well enough that the Pingrees asked to have Thurgood assigned to them regularly.
Thurgood has other assignments, as well, working with other seniors. He enjoys different things about each of them and loves his unretired life. "I knew on the second day I was going to love this," he said.
That he failed at a life of leisure was due to a lot of things, he said. He's sociable, like his wife of 16 years, Linda. Together, they're active in church activities and she runs her own business, an online clothing store.
His wife said he's "definitely happier" now that he's back at work. She describes him like this: He'd built lots of homes for seniors by the time they married, but loved the people and was still stopping by to help out. They live in the neighborhood he helped build, which is unusual for a builder and is a testament to his work.
"He'll run down and fix problems they have — way past warranty. He visits them, calls them, worries about them. We visit the widows on a regular basis." His personal and professional lives are "the same thing in a different way. He's in heaven. When he comes home, he tells me how much fun he has.
"He's such a happy person. He really is. I see it at home. He comes home all bouncy, 'I can't wait to tell you what Phyllis said.'"
Unretirement becomes him.