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Grandmother Becomes Lifeguard so Local Kids Get to Swim

70-year-old Robin Borlandoe earned her whistle and is guarding at the public pool

Robin Borlandoe poses for a photo at Mill Creek, the pool where she works as a lifeguard, on July 17, 2022.
Retiree Robin Borlandoe became a lifeguard this summer to fill a need.
Rachel Wisniewski

​When Robin Borlandoe heard Philadelphia was experiencing a lifeguard shortage and desperately seeking new recruits, she didn’t hesitate to sign up. ​

​The 70-year-old, who was a lifeguard when she was 16 and is retired from a career in health care, was interested last summer but took some time to prepare for the lifeguard exam, which included treading water, swimming laps and retrieving a brick from the bottom of a pool. ​

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​After a few months of training and a few attempts at the exam, Borlandoe earned her red swimsuit and whistle.​

​So now, five days a week, she slathers on sunscreen and heads to the public pool, where she settles into the lifeguard chair. She earns about $17 per hour and so far hasn’t had to jump in and make any saves.​

Robin Borlandoe poses for a photo at Mill Creek, the pool where she works as a lifeguard, on July 17, 2022. (Photo by Rachel Wisniewski for AARP)
Borlandoe lifeguards five days a week at a Philadelphia public pool.
Rachel Wisniewski

​However, Borlandoe’s new job is helping to ease the lifeguard shortage that’s plaguing both Philadelphia and the nation. Only 50 of Philadelphia’s 65 public pools were open by mid-July due to the shortage, according to NBC News. Nationally, a third of pools reduced hours or closed due to the lack of lifeguards, according to the American Lifeguard Association. ​

​When pools are closed, children miss out on a safe place to gather, play and cool off, Borlandoe says. The mother of three and grandmother of six says she has discovered that the job is more than watching over the pool — it’s an opportunity to be a positive influence on the children in her community. ​

​For example, Borlandoe noticed some children didn’t have proper swim attire, so she reached out to her network to collect bathing suits. She’s encouraging donations to the effort through the Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Department and the city’s Youth Sports Collaborative, which are working to collect and distribute new bathing suits, flip-flops, beach towels and other accessories for children. ​

​She’s gotten a lot of attention for coming out of retirement to take on the lifeguarding job, but Borlandoe says she’s just happy to be active and to keep children safe at the pool. ​

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Robin Borlandoe: These news stories have been about me being 70, but there’s more to this than that. There’s a reason why I did it. I was bored, of course, but now that I’m in it, I see the value. There was a little girl on the side of the pool. You can’t come in the pool if you have just clothes, so she had to sit on the side of the pool. I said, “Why is she not getting in?” and the brother said she doesn’t have a bathing suit. So I said, “You know what, come back, I’ll be here on Monday.” So that Sunday, I put out a text about this girl and to see if anybody has any suits. Well, my phone blew up. I now have goggles; swimmers, the little diapers that kids wear; floaties for their arms; and bathing suits. People have just come out and have supported this. On Wednesday, a boy split his suit and he was leaving, and I said, “Where are you going?” He said, “Oh, I don’t have a suit.” I said, “Come on Sunday.” I’ll have a bathing suit for that little girl and swim trunks for him. So it’s making that connection with these kids. I’m not just there to tell them to stop running. I’m there to help. I’m there to talk. I’m there for a smile. I’m there for a high five. ​

​Being a mother and a grandmother, I can sort of detect things that maybe the younger lifeguards don’t detect, only because I lived through that. It takes being a mother to tell when a child is in distress just by a look, especially if you’ve seen them day after day. If they’re just sad, if they’re not happy, if they’re being bullied, I just know. I can detect, I can see. Or even if they just need a hug. There’s this one little boy that every time I see him now, he puts his hand up and we high-five each other. So just that mother and grandmother instinct kicks in. You see things differently or sense something is going to happen because somebody is being splashed. ​

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​My advice for stepping outside of your comfort zone? Oh my goodness, just to push. You don’t know where it’s going to lead you. You know one thing, that just giving it a chance is going to benefit you health-wise and mentally. I heard somebody say when your moment comes, you’ll know it. Seize the moment. So that’s what we need to do as a people. Seize the moment, no matter how small it is. Get out there and just do it. Make it an adventure. Embrace it. I remember this talk from Jane Fonda; it’s called “Life’s Third Act.” Your first act is yourself growing up. The second is you raising your family, kids and your work. And now 60 and up is your third act. Embrace it, let’s go for it, let’s do this. And that’s why I always say make a statement. It’s never too late. ​​​

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