John Hayes, DVM, has retired twice, but it just never seems to stick.
In 1985, after years of foaling mares and taking emergency calls during 18-hour days, he sold a thriving mixed practice in Maryland to a protégée, intending to scale back to part-time work for a colleague. Within months, he was itching for his own practice again.
He set up shop in Ruckersville, Va., where his intended part-time clinic grew into a full-time concern. He finally sold that one in 2006, but he still wasn’t done.
Now 71, he volunteers spay and neuter services one day a week at a humane society, mentors veterinary students and continues working with a small group of clients, even if it’s to help calve at 2 in the morning.
When will he retire for good? He can’t say.
“Veterinary medicine wasn’t about making money; it’s something I was born to do,” Dr. Hayes says. “The whole deal is, and I don’t think I’m alone in this, veterinary medicine is your life, and you just don’t want to give it up.”
Indeed, Hayes may be on to something: More than ever, once a veterinarian, always a veterinarian.
The American Association of Retired Veterinarians changed its name last year to the American Association of Senior Veterinarians, largely because more veterinarians weren’t retiring at the traditional ages.
“None of the people on the board are fully retired,” says Bert Mitchell, DVM, the group’s president. “Some are lecturing, some are doing volunteer work, some are still in practice part time. And we were getting the sense that in general, veterinarians don’t want to think of themselves as retired persons.”
The new name and new status as an official non-profit association, rather than just a social one, will help the group better meet the needs of an increasingly active group of older vets, Mitchell says. The group has begun a drive to get 800 members, up from 300, which would make it eligible to seek membership in the American Veterinary Medical Association’s House of Delegates. The senior group intends to become more active in policy and advocacy issues that affect all veterinarians as well as in issues of special interest to the older population.
Why Stop Working?
The 71-year-old does spay/neuter surgeries, mentors veterinary students and maintains a small number of clients.
Exact statistics on the aging of the profession are hard to come by. The AVMA does not track veterinarians’ retirement age, but 15.1 percent of its working members were age 60 or older at the end of 2009. That’s up from 14.2 percent a year earlier, according to AVMA membership statistics.
The uptick, though slight and perhaps too recent to be a bonafide trend, seems to mirror what’s going on in the population at large, says Sara Rix, a public policy strategist with AARP. In 1985, 18.4 percent of Americans ages 65 to 69 continued to work. By 2009, that number had risen to 31.1 percent, Rix says.
The possible reasons, she says, include:
- The slowly rising age of eligibility for Social Security.
- The improved health of many seniors.
- The economic recession, which has led some to prolong working to supplement pensions, pad retirement nest eggs, pay for higher insurance costs, or all of the above.
“I do think the economy has had a huge impact, at least in the short term,” agrees Karen Felsted, DVM, CPA, who is CEO of the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues.
“Portfolios aren’t worth what they used to be and in many cases practices aren’t worth what they were a few years ago, so if they were counting on their practice selling for a certain amount, they may be finding that it won’t bring that now,” Dr. Felsted says. “People who have some flexibility seem to be deciding to hang in there a little longer and wait to retire until [the economy] has improved a little bit.”
But many veterinarians who work past the traditional retirement years say it’s not about the money.
When Mary Beth Leininger, DVM, retired from Hill’s Pet Nutrition in early 2009, capping a nearly 40-year career, she spent time on projects around the house, visited family and took advantage of local cultural offerings with her husband.
That lasted, oh, a month or two. By summertime she’d signed on as project manager for the North American Veterinary Medical Educational Consortium at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, guiding a group of experts who are shaping the future of veterinary education.
“It was just too exciting an opportunity to pass up: How do we create the veterinarians of the future?” says Dr. Leininger, who works at least half time, much of it telecommuting from her home in Kansas. She says she has loved the work, especially learning more about academia, and when the temporary position ends later this year she’ll probably seek another part-time role.
Staying in Charge
Dr. Everett Macomber retired three years ago but works part time at a Washington state horse track.
Experts agree that veterinarians, like many well-educated professionals, have additional motivations beyond monetary ones to prolong working.
“One reason, and this is probably very true for veterinarians, is that highly educated people often work for themselves and so they have a lot of say over their working hours, so they can scale back a little when they want to,” says AARP’s Rix. “Another thing is that these jobs tend to be more interesting. They aren’t doing the same old thing day after day.”
Everett Macomber, DVM, of Centralia, Wash., says that is certainly the case with the part-time role he picked up after he retired three years ago.
He works at a local racetrack, Emerald Downs, several days a month from April to September. As a veterinarian under contract with the state racing commission, his days begin at 7 a.m. He inspects horses before races, observes them during the races, and diagnoses and treats injuries afterward.
It’s the perfect segue from his days as a practitioner specializing in equine medicine, says Dr. Macomber, 73. He still has time to travel, spend time with family and pursue hobbies. He gets to contribute his decades of knowledge while keeping his mind and skills sharp—without the taxing physical toll of full-time practice, he says.
Equally important, it’s work he feels qualified to do in a specialty in which he’s kept his skills up to date, a crucial responsibility for older vets who continue to work, he and others say.
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A number of his peers have found similar roles, perhaps volunteering with a group like the Christian Veterinary Mission or another overseas charity, setting up consultancies, lecturing to producer groups, serving in veterinary associations, even doing meat inspection for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Macomber says.
In Virginia, John Hayes tells much the same story. His current roles—he also puts on occasional rabies clinics as a fundraiser for a local animal-welfare group—allow him to keep contributing to the profession he loves without the pressure of running a business 24/7.
“When I start making too many mistakes, that’s when I’ll stop. You have to know your limitations,” Hayes says.
He doesn’t see that day coming soon.
“I live, breathe and die veterinary medicine,” he says. “I still read journals. I still get up and deliver calves at 2 in the morning. When I don’t want to do all that anymore, I will know it’s time to stop.”
This article first appeared in the August 2010 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Click here to become a subscriber.