The nurse who fell in love with Copper River Basin

Series: Working past retirement in Alaska

Gay Wellman, how did you end up living in the Copper River Basin?

I came up with my second husband to Alaska in '78. I just fell in love with the whole area. I was happy to live out here with my second husband. But you know, that didn't work out. I ended up marrying a man who had property out here and had been living out here for a long time. We ended up back in the Wasilla area before we could move out here after we got married. I finally got here in 1996 and it's been my home ever since. I live in Kenny Lake. It's a little community that's in the Copper Basin.

And you're a nurse, is that correct?

Yeah, I'm a nurse. I gave up my license this year. It just felt like I wasn't really needing it. I got certified in psychiatric nursing. I became a nurse in the Substance Abuse Unit, the first one in Alaska that was inpatient. That would have been in the early '80s, Alaska Hospital. I worked there for quite a few years. Then I moved over to mental health with South Central Counseling Center, which is now Anchorage Community Mental Health. I worked there for several years, working with the chronically mentally ill and dual diagnosis. Then a short stint at the VA, and then I finally got out here and I got a wonderful job with the Copper River Native Association working with a family services kind of person-helping families that were losing their children or in danger of losing their children because of behaviors or whatever.

Then this job opened up [with Alzheimer's Resource of Alaska] and I was able to step into that, which is sort of a culmination of everything I was doing. It feels like my life has been leading me to this job. I've gained personal experience as well as my own personal hurts-and learning how to heal from those. The more we can heal from those old hurts, the clearer our mind will be. It's less cluttered. It's less stuck. I think all of that leads to us having a fuller life, if we can heal from those old hurts.

That's basically what we're trying to do for folks. Whether it's substance abuse or whether it's a burden being born with brain changes, but how to help people fulfill their life as full as they can.

And this job now with dementia is all about helping families learn how to deal with the challenges and learning how to find the joy in the challenges and find the rewards in the challenges.

You have worked way past the usual age of retirement. Why did you decide to do that? Now that you are 82, are you thinking more about retirement?

No, no, no, I don't think I'm going to retire. Not right now. I'm part time. I have done that, but I don't anticipate stopping as long as I've got this wonderful job. I get to work from home, for Pete's sakes. I get to do whatever I want. Essentially, I found purpose. That's what we need when we're older-purpose that is service-for me, anyway. I love what I'm doing.

I enjoy meeting new people. I have discovered that Zoom is wonderful. You meet people in these little boxes and they become close friends or close people you really, really care about, right? Oh, who would want to stop doing that? Meeting all these incredible people that are dealing with-oh my goodness, what they're dealing with is so difficult and challenging. And yet, we can find joy in it. We do a lot of laughing in the classes, in the support groups.

Do you have any advice for older people nearing the age of retirement in terms of whether they should retire, or should they keep on working?

If they're in a job that is draining, it's not feeding their soul-and I'm not speaking in the sense of religious soul, but who we really are. To me, spirituality is connection and relationship, not only with other humans, but with our world. And if we're in a job where we feel like we're not contributing to making it a better place, then yes, you should retire.

I wish I had time to dance, the ability to dance because right now my body's telling me, "Nah, you're not gonna be dancing anymore." But in my heart, I would love to be able to dance. I'd love to be able to sing in a choir. And I've been able to do a few of those things.

At some point I want to travel, and we're doing that. My husband and I got a little motorhome. Our bodies are telling us we should be slowing down. We joke about it. We wanted to do all this traveling before we got too decrepit. We missed that window, but we're gonna do it anyway.

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.