What I've Learned From My 79 Year Old Nonna Who Refuses to Retire

Nonna and Me
Image Credit: Nina Biagini

Nonna worked the same job, at the same corporation for her entire career and "retired" at 64. My nonna, the social butterfly, who never met a Friday or Saturday night where she wanted to stay home, lasted exactly three months before she found a part time job. It's not a difficult one and at first glance, it's not something she is particularly passionate about. She works the front desk of a local park district.

We – the family – shouldn't have been surprised. After all, when Nonno died, the man she dated since she was 12 and married at 19, she did not don all black to mourn him. She grieved but she also picked up a second job at night at a department store to keep herself "busy," as she would say.

Still, Nonna managed to surprise us all again at the beginning of the year, when she returned to that part time desk job after an incredibly taxing spinal surgery. It required weeks in the hospital and months of intensive physical therapy. That return has prompted me to realize her approach to work is one worth noting and learning from, even as a millennial.

You don't have to love what you do

Nonna on one of her many adventures
Image Credit: Nina Biagini

She isn't a rocket scientist and she would be the first to say her job is easy, as she runs the front desk and checks people in. On the surface, it's not her deepest passion. But that's not what it's about. There are other reasons to work. For Nonna, it keeps her social and plugged in with people of all ages (she loves Beyoncé, Pitbull, Adele, and Bruno Mars). It keeps her active, which is important to her. It gets her out of the house (the woman is incapable of sitting still except for while watching Dancing with the Stars).

Your job doesn't need to be your calling (although it's great if it can be). Instead, use your job so that it works for you, so that it ticks values or activities off your list of priorities, and still gets you paid. Like most millennials, I want my work to mean something. I can easily argue that my nonna's work does mean something. It has kept her body healthy and active while keeping her mind sharp and because of that, she remains the person who holds our family together.

You do need to find parts of your job to love

Nonna is more popular with my friends than I am
Image Credit: Nina Biagini

For Nonna, it's working with the college kids in the summertime (they think she is a riot) or meeting the various people who come into the park district. She can socialize with anyone about anything so she is in her element as she checks people in and is always gathering information. I can count on her – and her job – to help tell me when there is a sale at Nordstrom's and for new restaurant recommendations. Her fashion game is also on point because she is constantly meeting new people wearing the latest trends (unlike a lot of other grandkids of the world, I love receiving clothes as gifts from Nonna).

Nothing is all good or all bad. If you are struggling to love or even like your job, can you find some part that makes you smile?

Your office mates are just as important as your job, if not more so

Nonna as the life of the Party
Image Credit: Nina Biagini

Nonna has said again and again that she doesn't know why the park district keeps her (it's now been 16 years since she started!). But I know why they do – and so does anyone who knows her. She is always the life of the party, the morale boost they all need at that desk. Her intention to learn new things, from her iPhone to Facebook, is infectious when it comes to the spirit of learning. She relishes absorbing life from her younger coworkers (like, what does YOLO mean?) and it shows. She takes an interest in her coworkers' lives, too. In fact, she was even a bridesmaid in a wedding for a coworker nearly 50 years her junior.

This kind of attitude is noted by bosses and definitely by peers in your working environment. And it matters! Not just in terms of the job, but the relationships that begin, flourish, and enrich your life.

Work isn't the most important part of your life, but it is a part of it

Nonna and her youngest grandchild #besties
Image Credit: Nina Biagini

Every year, she asks the family if we think she should keep working. For the first several years, I always said, "No! Quit." I thought that meant we would see her more or that maybe she could actually enjoy retirement. But over the years, and as I have gotten older, I have done a complete 180. What I failed to understand before is that she is enjoying retirement and this job keeps her in fighting shape to spend as much time with us as possible.

Is it harder the older she gets? Yes. But I also know Nonna and know that she would be miserable without somewhere to go a few days a week. She would miss the kids she works with and the characters she checks in.

From her, I've learned not to make work my life but also that work can be the thing that keeps you grounded. She is more present in our lives because of the work she does.

Your wellbeing is directly tied to your outlook on work

Nonna still gets down and dirty with the youngest member of the family
Image Credit: Nina Biagini

If you saw my nonna, you would never guess her age. In fact, she isn't pleased I'm sharing it (but she is allowing it). She doesn't just look young; she is young at heart (remember: YOLO). And I'm convinced that it is because she keeps a schedule and gets out of the house. The job isn't hard but that isn't the point. She's surrounded by young people and because of that, she is stronger and healthier than most of her peers.

She has modeled the fact that attitude is everything and can affect every facet of life. One's attitude towards work is no different.

After Nonna learned what YOLO meant from some beefy body builder in his twenties, she grinned and nodded. "I like that," she told him without shame. And why should she be ashamed? She looks damn good.