Worse With Age: Recession Forces Elderly Back to Work

6:37 pm Business Stories

WORSE WITH AGE: THE RECESSION FORCES ELDERLY BACK TO WORK

Wednesday, October 21, 1992

By DAWN SHURMAITIS

Times Leader Staff Writer

Three percent. Nineteen bucks. The cost of three large bottles of Geritol.

 That’s what senior citizens are getting next year: a 3 percent cost-of-living increase that will boost monthly Social Security checks by an average $19.

 Meanwhile, interest rates on savings — which many seniors depend on to supplement their Social Security or pension — continue to plunge. A $10,000 Certificate of Deposit that earned $900 a year in interest in 1989 earns only $330 at today’s rate — a 63 percent drop.

 At the same time, medical expenses are climbing. They’ve jumped 7 percent during the past 12 months, more than twice the 3 percent increase in overall consumer prices, according to the Associated Press. Further, many seniors are burdened by higher property taxes imposed by local governments strapped for cash themselves.

 What it all means to area seniors is less money in their pocketbooks and wallets.

 To cope, an increasing number of men and women aged 55 or older are looking for work. Seniors who are too old to work, or who can’t find a job, are turning more and more to county agencies for help.

 “It’s the greatest increase in social services I’ve seen in 20 years,” says Mary A. Carrano, director of planning and program development for the Luzerne/Wyoming Counties Bureau for the Aging.  “Within the last year, year and a half, we’ve had a totally unacceptable waiting list. Hundreds of people at a time.”

 Unemployment among Luzerne County seniors crept from 2 percent in 1989 to 3.3 percent in 1991, based on the number of seniors looking for work. Seniors not looking for work are not considered unemployed. This year’s figures aren’t yet available.

 The problem is, they’re looking during lean times, competing for jobs in a market already bloated with younger, experienced and often well-educated applicants. “It’s really depressing. It’s frustrating,” says a Mountaintop man in his 50s who lost a white-collar job in 1991 when Addy Asphalt in Wilkes-Barre declared bankruptcy. He’s been looking for more than a year.

 “They won’t even talk to people my age. They don’t even call you.”

 No where to turn

  For some seniors, today’s recession carries frightening overtones of yesterday’s Great Depression. More and more seniors are on waiting lists for bureau services: home-delivered meals, personal care, help with chores, housing assistance. Carrano blames the increase on the recession, as well as the increase in this region’s aging population.

 The agency projects it will distribute 1,000 meals a day this year, more than it’s ever distributed. In fiscal year 1990-91, 360 seniors requested home-delivered meals from the bureau. The next year, that number rose to 590 requests. Requests for help at home jumped from 654 to 843.

 The majority of those in need are women in their 60s. Many have severe health problems, some suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. “Some situations are really, really desperate,” says Carrano. “People are living in chicken coops. People are living off dog food, cat food to save money. It’s all over. It’s hard to believe. “When you’re young you can survive hardships, you can say, `I have time on my side.’ You can see the light at the end of the tunnel. But when you’re 75 or 85 it’s hard. “When you’re 85 what are your options?”

 Desperate measures

  Phil Semenza is the director of the Kingston-based Elderly Training and Employment Program, which places seniors in non-profit agencies and pays part of their salary using a federal grant.  He deals daily with elderly men and women who reached their prime when Eisenhower was president and the Cold War was hot. Today, instead of sitting on front porches shooting the breeze, they’re finding themselves in relief lines accepting free food. In August, 17,300 area people lined up for free food distributed by the Commission on Economic Opportunity, up 10 percent from last year. The line was dotted with gray heads.

 “It’s pretty frightening when you’re almost 80 and you have to go out and look for a job,” says Semenza. “Social Security is not keeping up with the rate of inflation. They retire, and their health-care costs escalate. “People are coming in solely looking for a paycheck to pay for their medical insurance.”

 Says one senior looking for a part-time job: “The cost of Blue Cross will take up practically all my Social Security. That’s why I keep working. So I can keep my health insurance.”

 In 1990, 201 seniors aged 55 or older filled out application’s for work at Semenza’s office. In 1991, that number increased to 247. To date this year, already 257 seniors have applied. The majority are between ages 60-65. Most do not have pensions. They live on their Social Security benefits, which average $608 a month for an aged widow or widower living alone.

 Semenza, who is 37, can relate to the seniors coming into his office. His 62-year-old father is on disability. His 60-year-old mother recently was laid off after working 20 years at a plant in Scranton. She’s looking for work, too.”When they come in here they’re confused,” says Semenza of the agency’s clients. “Most of them haven’t looked for work for years. They need job leads, counseling. They’re looking for training or retraining. “They’re looking out of financial necessity. They have to work. They can’t live on their pension.”

 Semenza says more seniors in their 70s and 80s are seeking help, seniors who’ve never confronted new technology like computers, who’ve worked only one job and have only one skill.  The senior center trains them in such areas as computer literacy and then tries to place them. As an incentive, the center pays any agency employing a senior half his salary for up to six months.

 The employers are getting a bargain: an experienced worker with a strong work ethic who will gladly work for $6 an hour. Most of the jobs available are part-time, and usually don’t offer benefits. But most seniors, say Semenza, don’t mind. “They don’t gripe, `I was making $12 an hour at my last job,’ ” says Semenza. “They say, `I’ll take any job.’ ”

 Planning, says Semenza, helps, but is no guarantee, especially in the face of rising costs and a wobbly economy. “You can’t plan now for what your future will hold 20 years from now,” says Semenza. “What makes us so sure the Social Security will be there for us 20 years down the line?”

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