In dentistry, we have consultants who help prepare our practices for sale, and we have advisors who make sure we are financially secure. But the emotional transition [of retirement] is largely ignored.
Dr. Julie Kellogg
Chair, WSDA News Editorial Advisory Board
My father stepped out of the building he had designed, built, and grown into a thriving, four-doctor group practice and closed the door behind him. After 50 years, he had prepped his last crown and signed his last chart note.
While the practice would carry on with new leadership, he was leaving the place at the heart of his identity and arriving at new, often-envied destination — retirement.
The following Monday, I was back in the same office, staring at his empty desk, tears streaming.
Nearly every day for half a century, my father had gone to the office to meet the demands of a busy patient schedule. For 40 years, this was a part of my daily routine too, including the last 16 years of practicing dentistry together.
I wasn’t even sure I was a dentist without his presence.
Professional identity is a powerful part of who we are and how we see ourselves. I’ll wager that most of us quickly answer, “Oh, I’m a dentist,” when asked what we do or enjoy. This strong dentist identity can be hard to shake.
Many dentists have multiple hobbies and maybe even multiple side gigs. But generally, we see ourselves as dentists first.
How will we feel when we aren’t practicing dentists anymore?
We may face the “enigma of arrival,” as described by Dr. David Ekerdt, a sociologist who spent his academic career studying retirement. “One’s imagination of a destination, even a place for which one has prepared and striven, will not quite be one’s eventual experience of the place,” writes Ekerdt.
One of my mentors transitioned into retirement rather unexpectedly and told me that he was “blindsided by a period of stress and grief” that he was not prepared for. He did not realize how much of his identity and time was invested in being a dentist.
In dentistry, we have consultants who help prepare our practices for sale, and we have advisors who make sure we are financially secure. But the emotional transition is largely ignored.
Here are a few things to consider:
- We tend to view our work as a hedge against aging. But it may be our health that forces a transition out of dentistry. Changes to our health can be a disruptive and emotional experience.
- Our work days are highly structured — even down to the minute. In retirement, there is no longer a rigid work schedule. We may relish having zero daily obligations. Or at times we may feel guilty, as if we should be doing something.
- Because of our strong “dentist” identity, we may feel slightly self-conscious because the person we’ve known for decades is missing in action.
Six months after my father’s retirement, we are both adjusting.
He’s working on improving his health and fitness. He doesn’t miss the schedule, but he does miss the social interaction and intellectual stimulation of the group dental practice. His side gigs have become his main gig. And he enjoys it when one of his former patients recognizes him in Home Depot.
I’ve discovered that I’m still a dentist even though I miss having my dad in the office. I’m chasing some new professional dreams and working on a couple of side gigs, too. And I’m shifting my mindset away from being only a dentist. Now I say, “I’m a [coach/writer/skier] and a dentist, among other things.”
Slay the enigma of arrival. If we are lucky, life is one big long journey, and our emotions are signposts of the things we care about.
Being a dentist is simply one of them.
This editorial originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of WSDA News.
The views expressed in all WSDA publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the official positions or policies of the WSDA.