Increasing numbers of seniors, finding retirement out of reach and too costly, stay in job market

Tim Skillern
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Sharon Potter-Case, a self-described “Super Granny,” would prefer babysitting her 3-year-old great-granddaughter.

But the 67-year-old Clarksville, Ind., resident instead spends her so-called retirement working two jobs to supplement her Social Security benefits. “I must work to survive,” she says frankly.

Each week, Potter-Case devotes about 16 hours to a caregiver job with a home health agency, making $8 an hour. At another part-time job, she pulls down $9 an hour as a telemarketer for an investment firm. She receives $1,260 monthly in Social Security — almost exactly the disbursement ($1,266, according to the Social Security Administration) given to the average retiree.

But for America’s seniors today, being average isn’t enviable. And for Potter-Case, average isn’t enough.

Consider some sobering statistics: About 45 percent of older adults are considered economically insecure, according the U.S. Census Bureau; in 2012, 28 percent of retirees saved or invested less than $1,000, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute; and the average healthy senior, says the Gerontology Institute, forks over about $381 a month to cover basic health needs (including Medicare premiums, supplemental coverage, co-pays and out-of-pocket costs) — and that expense shoots to $511 a month for older adults in poor health.

These latest statistics, provided to Yahoo News by the National Council on Aging, paint a risky picture, says Ramsey Alwin, the senior director of economic security at the nonpartisan group.

Seniors are "more vulnerable than previous generations, and it’s requiring them to utilize every tool in the toolbox, everything from creative uses of home equity to re-employment to extended employment,” Alwin says. “It certainly has implications for their long-term economic well-being as their ability to continue to work declines.”

But millions of seniors nationwide, including several like Potter-Case who shared their stories with Yahoo News, are continuing to work and creating a semantic paradox: They’re “retired” but still working — sometimes plugging away at the same job they’ve held for decades or squeezing two or three part-time jobs into their routine. Or they say they’re retired but, in the same breath, admit retirement is impossible.

“Retirement is and will be out of reach,” Potter-Case says.

Her perspective mirrors an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll, released on Monday, that says 82 percent of workers aged 50 and older believe it’s somewhat likely they will work during retirement. Forty-seven percent, meanwhile, will probably retire later than planned.

Those most at risk, Alwin says, are older, single white women and minorities, those who enter retirement years with a mortgage or those with at least two chronic health conditions.

“For women, in particular — with lower lifetime earnings, having taken time off for caregiving, and outliving their significant other — it really puts them at risk,” Alwin says. “It is an illustration of an outdated social compact that relied upon a household with one breadwinner.”

Alwin advises those stuck in that model to explore local programs that sometimes go ignored. For instance, websites such as identify community resources for modest- to lower-income adults and assist with property tax relief, employment and training programs, prescription drugs and reverse mortgages.

They could help Potter-Case, who broke down her budget for Yahoo News in a first-person account she wrote: “My regular monthly bills — just to survive — exceed my monthly income by $400. And that's not counting money for food. Once I add $100 per week to my budget for food, I'm at least $800 in a hole, every month, before I even start. And I am not alone.” Potter-Case, who worked in sales before retirement, has no pension.

She takes a mental inventory of those like her: “I know a guy, 81,” she says, “who still works trade shows and marketing jobs. He is in great physical and mental health, and he works 40 hours every week. My big hope, other than winning the Lotto, is that when I am 81, I will still be able to work. Because in my household, it will still be necessary.”

Some seniors, of course, are working well into their 70s and 80s mostly because they want to sharpen their minds or polish social skills — and not necessarily because they fret fiscally. We’ve included their stories, too.

But cheery anecdotes aside, most seniors who shared their perspectives fit in the financially sour camp. Here are a few of their stories.

'Retirement' means keeping your financial head above water

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Before Mary Swingler left her 30-year teaching career behind, retirement “flights of fancy” filled her head. After turning 65 in August 2012, she devoted the free time of her first six months of retirement to doing “absolutely nothing” or sewing and writing.

“I was eager to begin this new phase in my life,” Swingler writes in her account.

But her pension was fixed and “stagnating,” she says, at $550 a month. Even with $996 in Social Security benefits, the Brooksville, Fla., resident couldn’t keep up with food, utility and health care bills.

“Going out to dinner with friends or going to the movies were luxuries I could no longer afford. Food-shopping underwent a major overhaul too; only the basics and only store brands were on my shopping list,” Swingler says, noting that her favorites — cinnamon raisin bread, Kashi cereals and deli luncheon meats and cheeses — have disappeared from her grocery list, which she trimmed from $60 to $30 a week.

“That is what my plans for retirement had become,” she says. Her return in February to the workforce met another hurdle: Shortly before turning 64, she’d become deaf and her health had declined. Employers balked. “Many equate intelligence and ability with hearing — that's unfair and untrue, but nevertheless a reality,” Swingler says.

So she turned to writing, a hibernating talent. At first, she became dejected after multiple rejections from publishers, but she’s found her niche with, a writing company that pays her about $40 to $50 for stories on wide-ranging subjects, from jewelry to auto loans.

“I am not an Ernest Hemingway,” Swingler says, “but I am supplementing my income. And, importantly, my financial head is now above water.”

She says she enjoys the work but would rather it be a hobby. “I wish that I did not have to work again, but like so many other elder Americans, that is not always an option," she said. "This is a sad commentary on the quality of life we reluctantly must accept.”

Impressive qualifications that no employer will consider

“Am I really setting the alarm again, packing my lunch again, scraping the windshield again, heading out for work again in the early morning?” Linda Louise Johnson asks rhetorically in her story. “At age 71? I'm afraid so.”

Two days a week, Johnson is a nanny to a 2-year-old girl near her home in Indianapolis. At $12 an hour, she brings in just $192 a week. That, plus her $1,200 a month in Social Security, doesn’t pay her family’s bills, even when she includes her husband’s benefits. She’s recently remarried and though they “do pretty well” financially, they tighten their belts for unexpected emergencies such as burst pipes, broken-down cars and sick dogs.

“So I'm looking for job No. 2,” Johnson says. “In the past two months, I have applied for 10 part-time nanny jobs, and four pet-sitting and pet-walking jobs in Indianapolis. Not only have I not been hired, I have only heard back from one ad on, with a polite rejection that told me essentially nothing: ‘Sorry, we are pursuing other applicants.’” Seventy-one-year-old applicants are not valued, she says.

Before retiring, Johnson produced TV and radio commercials and operated a small advertising agency. Her six-figure income, however, diminished significantly each year as clients pulled their business during the poor economy. Her bills — a big mortgage, office overhead, two car payments and two boys in college — zapped her savings.

So she’s adopting a different outlook: Retirement is for the entitled. After all, her grandparents never retired. She says she recalls “Gramp” making cabinets every day in his shop. Her grandmother worked in a neighborhood store through her 70s. They rented their upstairs for income.

That’s why it’s all the more discouraging when potential employers don’t even consider her.

“I feel I'm just as qualified as I ever was, despite a bit less stamina,” she says.

Opting to work forever when there's no financial need

Jacqueline Horsfall’s new role model is Alice Munro, the 82-year-old writer who won the Nobel Prize in literature earlier this month. That one can contribute so much at a late age is a lesson in keeping mentally fit.

Horsfall, a 65-year-old part-time writing instructor in Corning, N.Y., worries when she notices her older retired friends squandering their “big word” vocabularies — something she is worried about losing if she doesn’t keep working.

She'll soon be unemployed when the Connecticut school where she teaches closes after 45 years.

“I'd planned on working until I drew my last breath, guiding adult students through the intricacies of writing, marketing, and publishing,” Horsfall writes in her account. “It was a dream job, perfecto.”

And she’s unlike many in her generation: financially able to retire. She and her husband have a healthy portfolio, pensions, health insurance and Social Security. She doesn’t need to work, so why the big deal?

“The big deal is: I want to work. I need to work, for sanity and ego-fulfillment and the feeling that I'm still current and relevant, have something to say, to contribute, and to interact with others,” Horsfall says. “Do I sound like a spoiled brat? Here I am, better off than many of my retired peers, whining about my need for personal fulfillment and worthiness.”

But there’s one obstacle her financial security can’t camouflage while she hunts for a job: She’s 65.

“I realize I'll be facing the stigma of age bias.” Horsfall says. “I keep reminding myself of the adage about one door closing and another opening. But will it open for a woman over 65?”

Read more first-person accounts:

70 years old and realistic when looking for jobs

At 78, I'm not ready to call it quits

Retirement? It's a work in progress

Creating your own job after retirement

To stay afloat in retirement years, husband-and-wife team buy and sell gold

At 65, a little tired and leaning toward retirement — again

Retired and happy, but still working

For me, at least, retirement is the No. 1 killer of seniors

At 67, unretired and liking it

With health care's rising costs, retirement is out of the question