Series: Working past retirement in Alaska

Interview with Ken Helander

This is the first in a series of interviews with Alaskans who have continued to work years beyond the usual age of retirement. In this article, Anchorage resident Ken Helander discusses why he worked into his 70s and why he was finally forced to retire. We chatted in a local Anchorage restaurant July 11, 2023.

When and why did you come to Alaska?

I came in 1981 from Colorado. I was married, had two boys, and I worked for a community mental health center in Fort Collins. The programs began to be cut after Ronald Reagan was elected. My wife was in education and her programs were also being cut. We thought maybe we ought to just move to Alaska and see what it's like.

[Upon arriving in Anchorage] I thought, "I'll go to the mental health center here and see, maybe I can volunteer." I walked out with a job that I had for eight years.

Please talk a bit more about your job history in Alaska.

I've worked with issues of aging my entire career in all kinds of settings. Community oral health was one where, as a clinician program developer, we ended up creating an adult day program. I worked in senior centers, I've worked in clinics, I've worked in nursing homes, I've worked for the Alzheimer's Association, and I was involved in developing two different programs for older LGBT individuals -one in Denver and one here. I also worked at a very innovative program [for seniors] in San Francisco.

Then I worked for AARP as the advocacy director. In that job, I was responsible for public policy and legislation as it would affect older people. I actually was a lobbyist and worked with a lot of people in state government here in the Alaska legislature and also with the federal delegation. And then I finished my career working at the Alzheimer's Resource.

When did you retire and at what age?

I retired in October 2022 at the age of 74 because I became ill and was diagnosed with metastatic cancer.

I am happy to say you are looking pretty spunky all these months later. I would like to ask you why you kept on working after age 65.

Mostly because I enjoyed it. And felt that there was more that I could do within my field, make contributions. I was almost 65 when I took the job at AARP. I had been working in direct service with people and then as a specific program manager. Now, I was kind of taking it to a different level of working in policy that would affect people everywhere. I would say that was the climax of my career.

If you had it to do all over again, would you continue to work after age 65?

The biggest factor would have been financial. If I had the means and knew that I could retire without financial impact, and I could do things like travel or maybe continue to do my job in a different sort of way through volunteer work, or writing or teaching, or things like that-I might have done that. But I think I would still be looking for meaning and purpose and activity. I would not feel right to just withdraw and say, "Well, I'm done."

Now in retirement, what hobbies or other pursuits do you spend time on?

One of my lifelong pursuits has been playing the piano. I love music and I seek out opportunities to share that with others. One of the primary ways I do that is I serve as the accompanist for our church. Every Sunday morning I'm playing the piano for church. That's very meaningful to me. I also enjoy other hobbies such as stained glass.

There are a few groups that I stay in touch with, that I have had involvement with for years. One of them is our LGBT elders group -Alaska Rainbow Elders. One of the other things that I have time for now that I really value is being able to spend time with my family, people that are my friends, people that are important to me. And under the circumstances of my own life right now, a lot of it has been taken up with medical appointments.

Do you have parting thoughts to leave with the readers?

You're not going to be able to figure out retirement until you do it. It's kind of like many things in life, like the experience of loss and grieving. There are components of that in retirement, but you really don't know what it's all about until you personally feel it and experience it. And then it begins to dawn on you-you have to make some more decisions about a new way of life. You don't have to answer to somebody else, but you have to answer to your own self.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Author Bio

Lawrence D. Weiss is a UAA Professor of Public Health, Emeritus, creator of the UAA Master of Public Health program, and author of several books and numerous articles.