Dawn Olson, a manager at Mercy Health System in Janesville, Wis., took her laptop with her when she and her husband flew south to spend the month of February in Florida.
The 51-year-old wasn't lugging her work along on vacation. Instead, she enjoyed a vacation-like lifestyle - golfing and boating - while also working remotely at the part-time job she and her boss designed to allow her to spend more time with her retired spouse.
With information technology support from the hospital, "I was able to work my full schedule," Olson said. "When my staff had an issue they couldn't resolve, they'd call."
Mercy, which tops AARP's annual list of best employers for over-50 workers, illustrates the flexibility some employers are offering older employees to keep them on the job. The health system offers options such as seasonal employment with full-year benefits, flexible hours and compressed work schedules, telecommuting and phased retirement.
Such arrangements are far from the norm, but they're expected to become more common as larger numbers of the 76 million-member baby boom generation reach retirement age, placing more pressure on the nation's strained private and public pension systems and prompting a sea change in public policy.
For instance, obstacles are falling that prevented many employers from offering formal phased-retirement programs, in which employees younger than 65 collect partial pensions while working reduced hours.
Under a provision in the new pension law, workers 62 and older can collect partial benefits from their employer without quitting. The change is effective for most plans starting in January.
"This is really the first step in establishing a phased retirement program for the nation, not just individual employers," said Kyl Brown, retirement counsel for consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide.
"I don't think by any stretch it's the final step, but it's a fine first step," he said.
"I would expect to see a fair number of employers put in a phased retirement program," Brown said.
Meanwhile, industries that are hard-pressed to replace retiring boomers are at the vanguard of such programs. It's not surprising that nearly two-thirds of the 50 employers that AARP recognized this year are health care providers.
"The [health care] industry is experiencing a borderline crisis in being able to recruit nurses, pharmacists and others where the rate of people coming in is not keeping up with those approaching retirement," said Deborah Russell, AARP's director of economic security.
But skill shortages don't fully explain the worker-friendly practices at health care providers such as Mercy, a not-for-profit with three hospitals and 60 other facilities serving southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois.
Twenty-eight percent of Mercy's 3,800 employees are older than 50, as were 16 percent of new hires during the past 12 months.
Older workers "have tremendous work experience, they're at the height of their careers," said Mercy Chief Executive Officer Javon R. Bea, 54. "They usually have developed a certain compassion and a stronger value system," he added, "which we need in health care, and they're role models for younger workers.
"At the same time, they often want to taper off," Bea added. "But they want to maintain benefits for the full year, and they want to stay active."
Olson, the manager who worked from Florida during February, decided last fall that she wanted to spend more time with her husband, who is 61. But she didn't want to leave entirely the demanding role that she had developed over 16 years, after being the first person hired into what evolved into a customer relations department.
She became one of Mercy's first employees to design a role with her supervisor under a program called "Work to Retire," for over-50 employees who want to cut back.
She and her boss defined a new role, transferring part of her responsibilities to Mercy's marketing department and rolling the rest into a part-time job. Her vacation time decreased and she pays a larger portion of her premiums for benefits such as health care, but she maintained her benefits.
During a typical week she works 28 to 30 hours, coming into the office Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays but also working from home. Mercy's information technology support staff maintains a high-speed line to her home office.
"I've been able to grow and learn things, too, about how to manage from a distance," she said. "That's been a great growth experience.
"I probably will work longer than I anticipated," she added. "If I hadn't been able to cut back, I probably would have left the system."
Barbara Rose writes for the Chicago Tribune.