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Sometimes, returning to work means answering a calling ; Woman found niche in hospice care

Janet Studenski had made a bed countless times in her 53 years, but she hesitated in front of her classmates.

This time a student pretending to be a patient was under the covers. The state nursing aide exam was three weeks away, and changing the sheets on an occupied bed was one of 24 skills Studenski needed to master.

At stake were the certification and, with it, a shot at a job.

After more than a year without one, it meant too much to fail.

"Does she turn to her side?" Studenski frowned. "No. Yeah. Turn to your side."

She worked haltingly. Then, the students behind her giggled, and her shoulders sank: "I definitely wrapped her up in there like a mummy."

"It's different," she said quietly, drifting back to her seat. "You wouldn't think it would be so hard to make a bed, but it is."

Since she lost her job as a legal secretary in July 2009, Studenski had been living a life common among the swollen ranks of the unemployed. Every day, uncertainty dragged her down, and hope drove her forward. She felt too old to change careers, but here she was, reinventing herself in a field that promised new challenges and, she hoped, better job prospects.

The recession battered much of the country, casting legions out of work as companies scrambled to cut costs. Now, 1 1/2 years after it officially ended, the national jobless rate has fallen to 9.4 percent. But the economy added just 103,000 jobs, fewer than economists expected.

More troubling still: The number of people out of work a year or longer has grown dramatically, surging to 30 percent of U.S. job seekers last month.

Older job seekers are among the most frightened. Often, they feel disadvantaged when pitted against younger candidates. Some give in to early retirement. Others branch out, seeking jobs in sectors they would not have considered in better times.

Sometimes they succeed in finding work. And occasionally, like Studenski, they find something they never expected: a calling.

As the anniversary of Studenski's layoff approached, a friend from the old firm mentioned she was going back to school for medical administration. That got Studenski thinking about doing something similar.

The health care field has been one bright spot in a devastating downturn and is expected to deliver more jobs in the years to come. Nationally, health care has remained one of the few fields to grow during the recession, adding 36,000 jobs in December -- more than a third of the total gains, and second only to the leisure and hospitality sector, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.

Browsing job boards, Studenski began to notice numerous openings for certified nursing assistants, who help patients with daily activities from brushing their teeth to bathing to taking walks. It didn't pay a lot -- $9.50 an hour, or less than $20,000 a year, is typical to start -- but it was work.

She signed up for a five-week class. Her mother fronted the $500 fee.

On the first day, the students paired up with classmates and introduced each other to the group. As Studenski stood and her partner began talking about her, school co-owner Crystal Parker saw something special.

She caught Studenski -- and herself -- off guard when she said, "Have you ever thought about working in hospice?"

She had met Studenski once before, and saw her as a humble person with a calm, even voice that puts people at ease.

"You know that old expression, 'When you see an angel walk in, you see a glow around them'? That was kind of what I saw around her," Parker said.

After finishing the program and passing the state nursing aide exam, she applied to Hospice & Palliative Care Charlotte Region for a night-shift job -- 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., three days a week -- but she didn't mind; plus, she'd enjoy the four days off.

After days of waiting, she got the call telling her the job was hers.

Studenski has thought a lot about her journey, how strange it was that her instructors knew she'd end up in hospice, how lucky she was that it all worked out. She learned that, despite her fears, she could handle the tests, the unknown. It was actually easy, once she realized how much she liked the work. She encourages anyone else in her position to take a chance, too.

"Don't think that you can't do it, because if I can do it, others can do it, too," she said.

Her mother said initially of her new job, "Are you sure? You know what hospice is?"

But Studenski feels a sense of peace she could never quite achieve in her old career.

"I know this sounds corny, but I feel like I was chosen to do a really special job," she said. "To think that I'm the one that's going to be with people at the end of their life -- I'm going to be the one to try to comfort them -- that's an important job."

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