'Retired' Dr. Philip Azer continues ER work

At 82 years old, Dr. Philip Azer has retired from his job of working 60 hours a week on call at Scripps Mercy Hospital as an ear, nose and throat doctor.

Now he works only 40 hours.

The Boston area native — who received his medical degree from SUNY Buffalo in 1961, during John F. Kennedy’s first year of office — exemplifies a growing subset of people way over retirement age who still want, and find themselves able, to work.

After his wife of 60 years, Evelyn, died two years ago of lung disease, Azer moved to La Jolla’s White Sands retirement community, but he darts off to Scripps Mercy hospital any time of day or night his experience is required for a trauma case. And he even still keeps an office on Clairemont Drive.

Animated and sharp as a tack, Azer chatted with La Jolla Light in the White Sands dining hall.

Why does one move to a retirement community and not retire?

Well, there’s a few of us who are like that. I think people, if they’re willing and able, can still work for a number of years after 65. I like helping people. That’s the way I’ve been to do it most of my life and I don’t see any reason to stop.

When social security first came out, most people died in their early 60s. Now, people live to about 80, and there’s a lot of people who live a lot longer. People who live here are in their 90s, and people can be very productive in those years, if they want to be.

And I think you still have to think about having an income coming in. People can get serious medical problems and things like that. They can run out of money. What was good in the 1960s for retirement is no longer the case.

But you seem like you could still live by yourself without a facility like this.

Well, I’ve lived in La Jolla for 40 years. My wife and I had a very nice home with six or seven rooms, and when she passed away, I didn’t need a big home anymore. I also didn’t want to be isolated in a house.

wanted to live in a community; I wanted to be meeting with people and eating with people and having conversations. There’s a tremendous amount of people here who have had very successful lives and they’re very stimulating people, and it’s good for me to be around them. Also, it’s simplified my life tremendously. In addition to working fewer hours, I also have less responsibility for my living situation.

So cooking wasn’t your thing?

My cooking was mostly involved with the microwave, and I used to eat out a lot. Then, when I’m doing hospital work, I often eat at the hospital. But the food’s much better here. (laughs)

Are you genetically lucky to be so together at 82?

No, I’m genetically unlucky. My father died at 58 of heart disease and my mother at 67. However, with modern medicine and ways to reduce cholesterol, I’ve been able to live a lot longer than them.

And I have a brother who’s four years older than me who’s doing pretty decent, too. You do have genetics involved, but you can also alter things a bit by taking good care of your health.

And your mental health is probably helped by continuing to work a schedule like yours.

Yeah. I still have to produce. I can’t be half-hearted about it. I have to be able to compete with the younger people and do the job as well as they do. There’s no half practice of medicine. You’re either practicing or you’re not.

Also, when my wife passed away, it was really good for me to keep on working because it gave me time to put my life back together. It helped me through the mourning process, but life goes on, so you enter a new phase of your life and you work with that.

Did you know you wanted to be a doctor growing up?

My parents were pharmacists and they used to own a small corner drugstore and I grew up in the pharmacy and they influenced me to be a pharmacist. They grew up in the Great Depression and said you should always have an occupation you can count on.

So, I went into it, and after about my third year, I decided I wanted to be more in control of delivering medicine rather than taking orders for it.

So you rebelled against your parents by becoming a doctor.

(Laughs.) Well, no, they supported me.

What kind of cases do you see mostly?

We see a lot of serious neck infections. There are a lot of people who use the emergency room as their primary care, and when they come in, they usually come in very late and very sick. A lot of them need surgery or hospitalization with intravenous antibiotics. I also see airway problems due to tumors or severe lung disease that I can play a role in treating.

When did you decide you had to slow down?

Until I was about 80 years old, I could work a very full schedule, but then I started to develop some back problems and needed to get some more rest than I’d been getting. So I cut down from about 60 hours a week to 40, and that seems to be a pretty good balance for me.

I can still carry out my work, which I love to do, and do OK medically. And a lot of my work is paperwork, which I sit down for.

When do you think you’ll hang up your scrubs?

I’m going to do it until I feel I can’t competently do it. Then, I’ll stop working. But I’m not considering that yet.

Do you still enjoy life?

I’m a little slow getting up in the morning, a few aches and pains I have to deal with, but I do, I like it.

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