With newfound freedom in retirement—and not really interested in golf—67-year-old Joel Cohen decided to pursue untapped career interests and passion projects after a 40-year career as an economist. He is an activist, a published writer and a graduate student in social work who is currently interning at CJE Counseling Services. What motivated him to begin a social worker career at this stage in his life? “I wanted to do something more meaningful. That—combined with an early experience I had working with undergraduates from vulnerable communities—set me on this new course. I knew early on that there were other things I wanted to do, but I also knew I couldn’t do it all at the same time, so I just paced myself.”
So far, his twoyear Master of Social Work (MSW) program at Northeastern Illinois University has been a positive experience. Because of his decades-long career, albeit in another field, he can take on additional roles like coaching other students who are struggling with statistics. “There’s a lot of research in social work. I can distill and explain concepts presented by faculty and in journal articles to my classmates, many of whom don’t have backgrounds in statistics or suffer from math anxiety.”
So what led Cohen to CJE? He not only lives near CJE’s main office in West Rogers Park, but CJE Counseling Services seemed to be a natural fit with its commitment to providing mental healthcare and support for older adults who are navigating the challenges of aging, particularly during retirement.
“I thought that I would be a great fit because my age is so well aligned with the population served by CJE.”
As an intern with his own backstory and sage advice, Joel has had the unique opportunity to lead support groups, provide one-on-one counseling, and help facilitate CJE Counseling Services and Linkages community programs for the past year. “My internship at CJE hasn’t been typical of a first year student. I’ve taken on individual counseling tasks as well as support group counseling. Most students wouldn’t do that until their second year, but I have, due in part to my age and experience as well as staffing needs for the client caseload.”
Is interning in your 60s any different from in your 20s? Resilience is as important in your later years as it is starting your first job fresh out of college. Staying open-minded to new opportunities has helped Cohen throughout his career and now as an intern. “What’s most important is the commitment to learning and adapting. The desire to learn helps. I thought it’d be a huge adjustment for me to walk into a new field and be the novice. But it’s really been a reassuring and positive experience. People have looked beyond my age and what I’ve done before.”
Being the new student or hire isn’t easy at any age, and learning something new can take time: “Making progress can be difficult,” said Cohen. “But there isn’t much more required than patience and the commitment to continue learning.”
Student interns are generally in the process of discovering as much about themselves as they are job skillswise, and Cohen is no exception: “Working with the older population has given me a different perspective about my own life.”
As for his future plans in social work? “I’m not making plans for the long run yet. In the short run, I just want to finish my degree and lose the extra weight that I’ve gained from all the food my cohorts cook and bring to our classes.”
Cohen will need to find another internship for his second year of school, but he’s not ready to decide.
“I’m using this time to learn, so I don’t feel rushed in making a decision about specialization yet. I’m interested in working with other populations as well.”
And Cohen hasn’t completely given up his life as an economist. His experience has managed to manifest itself in other meaningful ways, such as through social activism: “Retirement from a 40-year economist career has given me a different perspective too. I’m no longer an employee anywhere, so I’m working to support anti-fracking organizations and lobbying groups.”
CJE’s professionals urge us all to strive to actively stretch our minds through new experiences, and we can be encouraged by Cohen’s perseverance: “I’m going to continue despite the deadlines and demands we experience in grad school,” adds Cohen with a chuckle.