Years ago my daughter and I were shopping around Christmastime at a packed popular national discount store. The employees were busy and barely keeping up with questions while restocking shelves. The cashier lines were long and people were crabby. We finally finished checking out and as we headed to the door an employee stopped most customers from leaving until she checked their carts. She took their receipts and checked items off, initialed the receipts, and wished the customers Merry Christmas. When it was our turn I was stunned to realize she looked to be about my mother’s age who was at that time 75 years old.
That was 11 years ago and it stuck with me. My daughter and I talked about the woman on the way home and the fact that my mom was sitting at home in her cute little house sipping coffee and reading the paper while this woman stood by a large automatic door that blasted her with frigid air with each customer exit. The woman looked tired and though there was a chair near her station it was such a busy day I doubt she had much time to
I remember saying something stupid to my daughter that I regret to this day: “What a shame that poor woman couldn’t be home sipping coffee and reading the paper instead of working here.” This foolish statement was based on emotion and not on any facts whatsoever. I knew nothing about this woman but made a judgment based on my own parents. I have changed my thinking on this issue now that I am 66 years old.
After that incident, and long before I retired, I began informally interviewing seniors when I encountered them in the workplace and this past year I stepped the research up a notch so that I could share my findings via this post.
The economy 11 years ago was heading toward the mess it is today but it was not nearly as bad and I wasn’t an official “senior” then. I was, however, on that borderline where I could get a few discount meals at some restaurants at 55 years old. I didn’t understand the complexities of what seniors experienced and what their needs and desires were. My only true experience was that of my parents and my grandmother.
I still have a wonderful memory of Grammy reading western novels in her special chair, a chair that I have in my home today. She worked in canneries and as a maid and as a seamstress and as a cook in large homes from the time she was a young girl but eventually moved in with my parents and retired at 65 and had a pleasant and long retirement with a $98 Social Security check each month until her passing at 91.
My naiveté at the discount store finally awakened reality in me. Not all seniors are created equal. Where would Grammy have been on $98 a month without my parents? (Probably standing next to a freezing door at a discount store.) Did the woman at the discount store have family or friends to live with? Did she choose to work there or did she need to work there?
My first “official” interview out of the roughly one hundred over the last year was at my local pharmacy. I’ve observed and chatted with a senior woman who has worked there for many years. Once we had a discussion at the checkout counter about garden gnomes which she collects. Extracting information like this is easy if it is approached with a friendly attitude and prying isn’t necessary. People like to chat, especially seniors. Seniors are sadly often ignored by younger folks. I learned that from another interview which I’ll share in a moment.
I learned this woman lives less than a block from the pharmacy in a senior apartment complex. She has a nice group of friends there and they take public transportation around town to various events and have get-togethers at the complex and she seemed to have a pleasant life. Eventually I gently asked if she “had” to work or did she “choose” to work. Her response was somewhat typical of many I have talked to: both.
Many of the seniors I’ve interviewed, including members of my own family and friends, continue to work because without the extra income they would not be able to participate in any activities. Their pensions or Social Security cover the basics but there is nothing left for trips to town or the movies or dinners out with friends. I met many seniors in this category. One gentleman told me that when he got up and prepared for work he felt every bone and muscle in his body but after he got going and got to work he felt okay. He wasn’t sure that he would be in such good shape if not forced to go to a job each day. He didn’t feel he had the willpower to stay at home and do an exercise routine or socialize. Working kept him “in the world” and helped his stiffness. He explained many of his nonworking neighbors were not doing as well as he was and they were a lot younger. So though he enjoyed the extra income, he enjoyed being productive more.
He also commented on how out of touch many of his neighbors were with other age groups. He encountered every age at work (home and garden super store) and many sought his advice because of his age. As I mentioned earlier though, he said that some younger customers did not want his advice when offered and he often saw
them with younger staff members. He was discounted as a valuable resource to the younger set. Sometimes he followed them a bit until in desperation they finally had to ask him for help. He thought this was quite funny because he once ran a construction crew. When they realized what this man had to offer they would frequently visit the store and track him down like a pack of wolves.
Once at a restaurant with friends we were served by a very senior woman. Waiting tables is not for the weak or the feeble. Both my kids worked in restaurants in college and my parents had a small restaurant. It’s grueling work and there is indeed a mental component. Managing several tables and coworkers and crabby cooks is tough work. It’s not often we see seniors in this work environment but here she was. Because we were close to her age we struck up a fun conversation with her throughout the meal which was expertly served to us. I asked how long she had worked there and she said “too many years.” We all laughed and made comments and I expressed she seemed to like her work and that she was excellent at it. She loved her job and said she was going to continue as long as possible. She added that tips for seniors were generous.
A few people I have talked to, and a few seniors I know personally, have continued to work because they have to. Life events occurred (and questionable investing) that set them back as they approached retirement. Of this group most did not continue with their original jobs but instead sought employment elsewhere and often with entirely different duties. Partly this was because employment choices are slim for seniors and party because they didn’t want to remain with their former employers. In fact, many seniors felt their long time employers were equally eager to have them leave.
A few people I’ve met during this past year have asked me questions too. How I was able to retire at 62 is a popular question. For me, and hundreds of thousands like me, I sacrificed better income in the private sector for the benefit-loaded but less pay public sector which included years of excellent pension build up and health care. Though my employer does not pay retiree health care I do have a nice pension for my 20 years and now that I’m 66 I’m able to pay for a decent supplement with my Medicare. Of the people who asked that question a large number were horrified to find themselves in their sixties with no savings and no pension and a spotty work history with periods of unemployment for women who took time off with their young children and they now find themselves in a bad spot. Some said they would have to move in with their adult children if they stopped working but not all of these people felt that to be a viable option. One woman told me she has held off moving in with her son and daughter-in-law, though she has been invited, because she would be a 24/7 babysitter. She loves her grandkids but she didn’t want that responsibility on a daily basis. Still, many seniors have no choice. It’s better than living under a bridge.
Speaking of homeless seniors, I didn’t spend as much time with this group as the working group because my focus was on seniors in the workplace. Walking up to a homeless person in my spiffy casual attire made me self-conscious. Of course, I did include them because I was interested in knowing how they became homeless. They were living in shelters because they either didn’t have a family or other support group, their Social Security was
only enough to cover food and medications but not housing, and because many were so poorly educated and marginally employed over the course of their lives they found themselves edged out of meager minimum wage jobs and eventually edged out of their apartments. Many I talked to did want to work but after observing their appearance and their improbable contributions to a workplace I knew that was never going to happen. (I almost always give a few dollars to homeless seniors and anyone with a dog. Judge not lest ye be judged.)
I met these people outside grocery stores and gas stations and coffee shops as they stood outside with little signs asking for money. I know a lot of people don’t believe people with their little signs but it’s important to know that not everyone is a con artist. There are people asking for money on the street who genuinely need money for survival who are simply at the bottom of the human barrel. It’s everywhere in the world but it’s appalling to find it in our country. And every day more and more people join the ranks of the unemployed and homeless and very little is said about the growing number of seniors joining this group.
We are created equal but we don’t stay that way. Because of circumstances beyond our control or poor life choices based on inadequate parenting in our youth, many of us end up in dire straits. Add to that the mentally incapacitated, the addicts, the illiterate, and those born into poverty that stay there their entire lives, it’s no wonder that some seniors continue to work as long as possible.
One man who is often at my regular gas station collects enough money to stay in a “hotel” two or three times a month and the remaining days he stays at shelters or stays outside. He looks a lot older than my mom but he could be younger than I am. The streets are not kind to seniors.
A friend and coworker of mine, pushing 80, passed away at home one night after a routine day AT WORK. For years we wondered when he would retire but we eventually realized he would never retire. I was the first one in the office each day and I would quickly travel up and down the hallway and check all the offices looking for him. I feared the day I might find him slumped over in his chair but he died peacefully in a comfy chair in his own home after a normal day at work. Though he never benefitted from the beautiful retirement he had coming to him after years of working and investing, we all knew he died doing what he loved: working. It kept him young and provided the office with many years of valuable expertise on many subjects.
Of the folks I met only a few were disappointed they still worked. Those people, I learned, were the ones who had health problems that made working uncomfortable, or people who had simply worked “hard” for many years and were truly tired. The majority of the people I chatted with needed the money and the next largest group needed the mental stimulation and the rest fell mostly in the middle of “need” and “want.” The most important lesson I learned was seniors are a feisty bunch and they can contribute to the workforce for a very long time if, as one gentleman said, “God’s willin’ and the creek don’t rise.”