Where Do Old Elephants Go to Die? When is it time to retire from working in this field?

The issue of deciding when to retire is perhaps bigger than we realize, and as such, continues to be under-addressed. It is not an all-or-nothing decision because people can shift from full-time to part-time or even move into volunteer service positions, and thereby phase out gradually. Some people die; some win the lottery and are ready to leave; some relapse and are barred from further practicing; some become tired or burn out; some are laid off; some leave for other, unrelated interests in other areas of work; and of course there are mental and physical infirmities of health that force some people to leave.

Below is a list of issues that are important to consider about retirement:

1.   Their own recovery.

Many people decide to become an alcohol and drug counselor after having been inspired by their own recovery journey.

Early on, employee assistance program (EAP) personnel were often company employees who were brave enough to be publicly recognized for their sober support to other employees within the company. This eventually led to a specialized department or job position within many companies where such people offered structured help to the other employees. Often when these people retire, some companies outsource the EAP off-site. It is just becomes a line item on a budget sheet to lower staff expenses. The stress of chasing this paperwork trail can become tiring; it is not why people become a counselor. Some people leave doing this work due to the greater burn-out and effort trying to keep up with their CEUs or licensing requirements, or insurance reimbursement and panel qualification needs.

2.   People’s specific perspectives on their careers. 

An elderly priest said to me that he understood back in seminary, decades ago, that once he put on his collar he would always be a priest. It is very difficult to separate the career of a minister, doctor, therapist, policeman, or nurse from the way they think and act off duty. As a therapist, I am not able to turn that off in social situations; I am always a therapist. For example, I still have the duty to report harm or neglect of a minor if I witness it, on or off duty. It is impossible to not view the world through the lens of our profession.

3.   How to say good bye.

Once I attended the goodbye party for a supervisor whom I really appreciated. At the party, he was kind, gentle, and happy – even though the agency had forced him to leave his position through a layoff before he was ready to go. His departure was an example for me in the delicate art of how not to burn one’s bridges when we go. We need to help others as we would want help for ourselves, to paraphrase a thought. Yet many companies now do not offer goodbye parties or even acknowledge the ending of positions or careers.

People who struggle with codependency may leave without saying proper goodbyes to their coworkers. When faced with an issue, such as feeling needed or unneeded, these people may avoid or even act out inappropriately.

When work ends after decades of a daily schedule outside the home, it becomes difficult to know what to do with one’s time and with whom to spend it. Spouses, family, or friends may or may not adjust easily to the person’s constant presence – it will certainly require an adjustment period.

Ego is involved in everything we do. Many of us are filling our egos by the work we do. For right or wrong – just like any addiction – it may be really difficult to leave behind what was feeling good to us. Humility in the recovery programs helps addicts and alcoholics to remain sober and balanced. Would proper human resource guidelines and rules in company personnel policies help with the issue of retirement? Many agencies and companies don’t address the issue of when is it time to retire. Their guidelines spell out what to do when a position ends, when it’s necessary to remove an employee, when a staff member quits, or even how to properly offer wages and benefits to staff, but have you ever attended a training on “When is it time to humbly say goodbye”?

4.   The relatively low wages for the work expected; how to look at the finances of retirement from a non-profit or for-profit position.

In the not-for-profit companies, it was rare to ever receive a cost-of-living increase, raises, or comfortable living wages. Let’s face it: no one entered this field to make a lot of money. We entered because we felt called. I always have related my earnings to those in religious callings, whom agreed to the vow of poverty. (By the way, in some faiths, the clergy are mandated to retire at certain ages.) Do we wait to retire until we are old enough to receive the maximum monthly payment from Social Security? What about those of us who have never paid into it, either because of inappropriate work ethics while using substances, or for other reasons?

Years ago, I listened to a beloved 60-year-old worker in a detox unit adding up the length of time he had earned Social Security, only to learn at 65 how little he would actually earn each month if he retired. He wasn’t certain if he could work more years given his poor health from decades of chemical abuse. He had devoted his sober life to helping other people obtain the gift of sobriety, yet sadly had not prepared himself to financially survive into retirement.

Benefits packages and retirement plans offer buyouts windows to for-profit or state and federal workers as an incentive to leave the field when their retirement pay has reached a certain level. In the number of clinical positions I have held over the years, both as a manager and as a line staff, only two jobs offered retirement plans. Neither will be enough for me to survive on.

Early on in my career, I had a financial manager tell me to put 10% of my earnings away into savings before spending my paycheck, and also to set aside money in IRA and other retirement plan contributions. I have tried to do that, but still, my retirement plan is based on hoping to win the lottery.

5.   Preconceived notions of the appropriate retirement age.

Remember, being happy in life is important and something to plan wisely for in retirement.

Today, families are responsible for adult children (or grandchildren) longer than in the past, and our aging population is working much longer in life than only a generation or so ago would have dreamed. I thought I would retire at age 55, as my father would have done in his day, yet today’s economy and our longer lifespans cause this to be unrealistic for most of us. How long we continue to work is an open-ended process for us each to examine and choose.

A small part of the 1999 edition of “A New Zealand Prayer Book” gave me pause to think in relation to this topic: “…God, give us work till our life shall end, and life till our work is done.” Perhaps that is how it should be done.

6.   Supervising the senior (by age or experience) clinician toward retirement issues when the supervisor is younger.

How does a supervisor deal with the older worker in the office? This can be a really tricky area, where transference and counter-transference comes into play, or where the company’s profit margins sometimes overcome the morals of being kind to our senior employees. How about the older worker who is less skilled with computer knowledge or programming methods, but knows more about dealing with people? Who helps the older worker or the older supervisor to end their work in the field? These are all difficult questions, and I bet some of us have seen these situations already.

7.   Who owns your work?

Clinically, the issue of ownership of the clinical paperwork is easier in a company or institutional setting where the records are owned by the company, yet in a solo private practice, this becomes more complicated. Everything – billing reports, clinical charts, telephone, website, email and computer passwords, and all the rest is part of the estate of the practitioner; and should be considered when preparing to retire. A spouse or family member should not – and cannot legally – take on having to deal with such clinical issues of an estate.

One lawyer advised me to establish a formal relationship with another clinical practice three or more years before retiring in order to offer a smooth transition for the patients to move from one practitioner to the other. Then, actively market the merger of the practices. Paperwork, new referrals, and current cases can then be moved seamlessly. Patients who are currently being seen by the retiring clinician can be informed of how the other clinical practice works and of the strengths of the new, younger clinician. Perhaps even consider having a period of professional overlap while the patients transfer over, and the retiring clinician stays in the new practice in a time-limited role. No abandonment, no HIPPA violations, and no harm is done with such forethought.


Regarding the title of this article ‘Where do old elephants go to die?’ … I loved to watch the television show “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” on Sunday evenings. At one point, there was a question of where elephants went to die, and no one seemed to really know. We see this with the issue of retirement as well.

Like the elephant in the room, we have a problem in our field of workers growing older with little guidance or professional conversation about how, when, or why to retire or to end our career. Basically, lessons from AA’s Steps 3, 4, and 5 are useful here. It is important when facing retirement to “Let Go and Let God,” to take a full inventory, and to tell another of our actions and decisions. I hope this will start conversations for you, your family, and for those in your place of work.

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