Are You Still Working?

Though a newcomer to the blogosphere, Over 65 has already attracted media attention.  A few weeks ago, a network news staffer contacted The Hastings Center trying to find a woman over 65 who is still working for an interview the following day. Susan Gilbert, Hastings public affairs and communications manager, contacted me that night and I agreed, somewhat perplexed by what could possibly make my date of birth rather than the work I do newsworthy.

The staffer was thrilled to find someone so easily, and in addition to my filling the three basic requirements, I have the added attribute of living in Manhattan, making me a cheap guest. As it happened, “breaking news” intervened, and the idea seems to have disappeared into TV’s black hole of soft news.

This brief episode, however, made me think about the request.  Would the same idea have come up as a news story about older men still at their desks?  I doubt it. Yet I am frequently asked by friends or colleagues I don’t see regularly, “Are you still working?”  Clearly they expect the answer to be no.  And when I say yes, there is an awkward pause, during which my questioner does not know whether to feel sorry for me or congratulate me.

It is no secret that older American men and women are working longer. No more early retirement, the mid-20th century American dream. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 1977 and 2007 employment of workers aged 65 and older rose 101 percent.  Male labor force participation increased 75 percent, but for women the increase was even greater – 147 percent.  The most dramatic gains were in the small group (both men and women) over 75 – a 172 percent increase from 1997 to 2007. These increases are seen in rural, suburban, and urban areas. Not surprisingly, education plays a role, especially for women. In this period the highest increases in labor force participation were seen in women with a college education, double that of women without a college degree.

So I am a data point in a statistical trend, which might have been the idea for the news story. But that still doesn’t explain why I am still working. Of course, for many people retirement is not a choice. They may lose their jobs because of mandatory retirement ages, downsizing, and many other factors beyond their control.

For those who choose to retire, there are many possible reasons. People who have acquired substantial wealth may want to see it used for positive purposes in their lifetimes. People may want to do the good works themselves, both here and abroad, by volunteering with aid organizations, environmental groups, or whatever passion moves them.  Some people want to start a business (baking cookies seems to be high on the list) or start an “encore career.” Many people just want to spend time enjoying leisure activities, whether that is time spent in learning a language, playing the piano, travel, golf, or other pursuits.

To be able to retire for any of these purposes requires a fairly high level of financial security, minimal obligations to other family members, and a sense that one has achieved all that one set out to do while working. For most people it is increasingly hard to put all these factors into one package. And so it is for me.

I first started hearing the question more than 20 years ago, when my late husband was grievously injured in an automobile accident and was hospitalized for months and then in a rehab facility for more months. The staff at these places assumed I would quit my job and take on what they knew (but failed to tell me) would be a lifelong responsibility for his total care. By being present at all hours, I would also relieve them of some of the drudgery and frustration of dealing with a patient who was brain-damaged, totally reliant on others, and, once he came out of a coma, very angry. (Staff did not expect the same of husbands, who were greeted with great enthusiasm when they infrequently showed up.)

I knew very little then of what the future held, but one thing was very clear: if I quit my job, our lives would be poorer and not just in monetary terms. So I chose to endure the staff complaints about him and me, spent every day from 4 pm until 10 pm and all day and evenings on weekends with him, and hired a private aide to help out when I couldn’t be there.

Reason No. 1 why I am still working: Caring for a disabled person (parent, child, spouse, whomever) at home is very expensive. Once we were at home (having moved twice to accommodate all the necessary equipment and accessibility needs), I continued to work, paying privately for an aide to be with him during the day and overnight when I had to travel. I also paid for all the services like physical therapy and occupational therapy that insurance would not cover because he was never going to recover fully. This went on for 16 years until his death in 2007. Working for me became respite, time away from caregiving.

None of my husband’s “custodial care” was covered by insurance. Medicaid in New York does provide long-term care at home but it would have required me to spend down and quit my job. (The future under Medicaid managed long-term care is still being worked out, but I cannot imagine that it will be more generous.) So even with a McArthur Fellowship and a period of short-term disability income, and some money from a legal settlement, I spent a good deal of my supposed retirement fund for his care. A nursing home was not an option, because it would have been hugely expensive without Medicaid, and because I would have had to cede too much control of his care.

With this history, I don’t trust any governmental or insurance safety net to take care of me in the way I took care of my husband. I want my family to continue to be my emotional support, not my personal care attendants. So by continuing to work, I am rebuilding a modest safety net of my own, not for medical care but for all the things that medical care does not provide in terms of quality of life. I suspect that nearly every woman over 65 who is continuing to work has some financial reason for doing so – a grown child or even parent who needs help, a disabled grandchild, financial setbacks, an unsatisfactory divorce settlement.

But money is only part of the story, and here, too, I suspect that women of my age have had comparable experiences. Reason number 2: I continue to work because I am passionate about the work I do – building strong relationships between health care providers and family caregivers – and worked very hard to build a career at a time when it was not so common for women, especially married women with children, to be working.

People who know me from my years at The Hastings Center assume that I had a strong interest in medicine or ethics and moved to Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., to work at the Center. In fact, I had lived in Hastings for several years with my husband and three small children before I heard of The Hastings Center, which was then only a few years old. I knew nothing about medical ethics. (My one ethics course at Cornell was with Gregory Vlastos, who later was a visiting scholar at Hastings.)  At Cornell I had studied history and Russian language and literature (in Russian with Vladimir Nabokov), and at Columbia, I was a graduate student at the Russian Institute.  In the 1960s this prepared me to do absolutely nothing except join the CIA.

Yet I had a good education and was a good writer (all my professors had told me so.)  Even so, I was turned away by potential employers (even for part-time work) because they noted, quite matter-of-factly, that they didn’t hire women with children because they were unreliable. Besides, they said, men needed jobs to support their families, whereas I had a husband. I had no prior full-time job experience, no mentor, and no network.  Even when I did get an assignment, the man in charge would often give me my small check and say something like, “Well, now you can go down the street to Georg Jensen and buy yourself a trinket.”  These were the good old days.

Not all was bleak. I was co-author of a book on comparative government and another on historic architecture in the New York City area. I had one strong suit: I had been trained in editing and manuscript preparation by two demanding women of the old school of editing. And that was why, I believe, when I approached Dan Callahan in 1975 and asked if he had any freelance work, he was willing to take a chance on me and gave me a manuscript to edit. Over the next few years I moved from freelance to part-time and then to full-time, eventually becoming editor of the Hastings Center Report.  Dan had an informal hiring style and he liked to hire, as Will Gaylin puts it, “ladies from the neighborhood.”  Most of us turned out rather well.

I left The Hastings Center when it moved north to Briarcliff Manor, and my husband and I felt it was time to move back to New York City, where he worked and where we had lived in our early married years. This new period in our lives lasted for only a few years until the accident. I was hired as executive director of a foundation-created citizen’s commission on HIV/AIDS, an issue area I had introduced to Hastings, and I have not had a problem in finding work ever since.

But those early years of repeated rejection still haunt me. Maybe I still feel I have something to prove. More likely I have found what I knew all along – I need to work for my sense of who I am. The more I work, the more I need to work. In fact, my next book was just sent to the publisher, and it’s not even part of my day job.

Carol Levine, 78, is director of the Families and Health Care Project of the United Hospital Fund and a Hastings Center Fellow.

7 Responses to “Are You Still Working?”

  1. Martha Shea

    Carol, thank you for this article – wonderfully written and articulating what a lot of are experiencing. Having just had a conversation with a family member about when to take SS (I’m not there yet) I had said I shared that I’m not ready to retire any time soon. Finance is an issue, but more so is that I still want to stay engaged with the world intellectually and professionally. I am so happy you shared your story…I’m certainly not alone!

    • Clarinda

      Alghirt alright alright that’s exactly what I needed!

  2. Barbara McWms

    Enjoyable & informative and included reasons why I continue to work, being alone, daughter’s wedding plans and when I have to much time to myself I get bored. Fortunately I work at a college and have an interesting job although not the highest paying but affords a nice life of genteel poverty. There have been times when I had more money and more headaches, when my daughter was young we lived on much less but in a healthy community where she graduated from high school & college with honors. We are very close because together we made it through some challenging times and are stronger for it.

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  3. Peggy Sax

    Thank you, Carol for this well-written and thought provoking blog entry. While you wrote this piece more than 6 months ago, I am only finding it now. I love your inclusive, rich description of many reasons why people work and/or retire – how you acknowledge many factors such as personal preference, life circumstance, economics, privilege, gender and choice. You might be surprised to know that at 61 I am already often asked, “Are you still working?” When I was little, I remember my mother quoting Freud, “The two most important things in life are love and work.” Now, I am fortunate to love my work, and thus to face the dilemma as I get older, how best to make time for all that I want to do – and enjoy- in the years ahead.

    I hope your work continues to be satisfying to you, right up to the moment if and when you decide it’s time for something different. In the meantime, enjoy the acts of creation! And I join others in thanking you for your contributions…

    Peggy Sax,
    Middlebury, Vermont

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