To keep sharp, retirees need to find a purpose

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 17, 2013 - 2:50 PM

For Carol Ouhl, working with therapy dogs and patients who respond to them keeps her busy after a 50-year career at Securian.

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Carol Ouhl got a kick out of working with Finn during obedience training. Ouhl, who retired in November after 50 years at Securian Life in St. Paul, plans to devote more time to her longtime passion of training animals as therapy dogs for the elderly, the infirm and others in need, as well as training trainers.

Photo: Photos by CARLOS GONZALEZ • cgonzalez@startribune.com,

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Carol Ouhl, who trains therapy animals and the people who work with them, is taking her free-time passion into a purposeful retirement.

Ouhl, 67, retired after 50 years at Securian Financial in November. She is on the leading edge of hundreds of thousands of baby boomers who are exiting the workforce each year. And she’s demonstrating what the psychologists and aging experts recommend by staying engaged and healthy in retirement.

That may be improving your golf game, lending a hand with grandkids or doing volunteer work. Regardless, we all need a purpose. Work and managing a family are often the purpose for many years, without much thought given to what follows.

Ouhl’s avocation, which she discovered in her spare time more than 20 years ago, will be an important part of a fulfilling retirement. She started at Securian, then known as Minnesota Mutual Life, in 1963, after graduation from St. Paul Central High School. Her father’s untimely death scotched any chance of going to college.

Ouhl moved from clerical and secretarial roles into professional staff jobs in business lines and compliance. She had planned to retire early, but the 2008-09 stock market crash depressed her retirement investment portfolio. So she elected to work longer. Now her investments have recovered and she doesn’t need to work for pay.

“Carol is a wonderful example of Securian’s value proposition as an employer in retaining great performers,’’ said Kathy Pinkett, senior vice president, human resources and corporate services at Securian. “In her 50 years with the company, Carol held several positions and experienced career progression. Many of the people who have been with us for decades stay because they have opportunities to move or promote into new positions, develop new skills, tackle new challenges.’’

In retirement, people still need those same challenges, argues Richard Leider, a management consultant who lectures about “purpose” in life.

He has found that the happiest folks are those who, once their basic needs are covered, focus at least some of their time on a passion. That can range from art to tennis or golf to helping others.

In “Life Reimagined,” his recent book published with AARP, Leider says the healthiest seniors are often the ones most engaged in something.

“Carol’s is a classic case of purpose and ‘life re-imagined,’ ” said Leider, “She still has, beyond work, a reason for getting up in the morning.’’

It turns out that Ouhl’s passion is helping others. Ouhl acquired a German shepherd in the early 1990s that she intended to show in dog-obedience competitions. But the dog hated competition.

“He was always a snugly, affectionate dog, friendly to everybody,” Ouhl recalled “Our training center was just starting a therapy-dog group. I knew nothing about it. Susie had an amazing talent for it. As it turned out, she was so good at not only greeting people, but she was so tolerant, I could take her anywhere and work with anybody and not have to worry about her. I bred her, kept one of her sons and he did the same work with him for years.”

Ouhl started visiting nursing homes with Susie. She loved the reaction from residents who were thrilled by an attentive, loving animal. Therapy dogs are different from service dogs or guide dogs that work with the blind or people with disabilities. Therapy dogs are trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals or nursing homes.

“If you just once see a therapy animal working and you see the result with a human, it is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever seen in my life,’’ Ouhl said. “I do free seminars with the public every six or seven months. I tell them I’ve seen dogs help bring people out of comas, help people who are in a shell, noncommunicative, and they will come out of the shell for the animal.’’

Ouhl points to a patient at Struthers Parkinson’s Center in Golden Valley, a day program for people with Parkinson’s.

“A gentleman was informed that he had only six months to live,’’ she said. “He would not do any more gardening or participate in games or anything else. He stopped doing everything. But he continued to participate with the dogs, training with the dogs. We worked one-on-one with a therapist and we set goals and tried to devise activities. And that gentleman was to hit a tennis ball, but it had become a mundane activity. But with a dog who would chase the ball, it wasn’t mundane. He really liked that dog, and he was interacting and using all kinds of maneuvers and exercising.’’

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