Working at 76: Inflation forces hard choice for older adults

Keywords Inflation / Retirement

Lenore Angey never imagined she’d have to go back to work at age 76.

With an ailing husband and the highest prices she can remember for everything from milk to gasoline, the retired school lunch worker from Cleveland, Ohio, now works part time as a salesperson at a local department store to cover the costs of food and medicine.

“The holidays are going to be tough, and it’s not just for seniors,” said Angey, who said she was happy to get an extra 10 hours a week during the busy shopping season. “Luckily my daughter-in-law did all the cooking for Thanksgiving and I brought a few dishes. But the Christmas celebration will definitely be more modest.”

Inflationary pressures may be starting to ease, but higher prices throughout much of 2022 are still taking a toll on older adults, with a larger share of people like Angey saying they felt their finances were worse off than a year before. Consumer inflation in November was still up 7.1% from a year earlier.

While people of all ages are struggling, those over 65 often have an even harder time because they usually live on a fixed income, unable to increase their paychecks with overtime or bonuses.

The problem will become more widespread in the coming years as more baby boomers, who began turning 65 in 2011, join the ranks of the retired. In 2050, the U.S. population ages 65 and over will be 83.9 million, nearly double what it was (43.1 million) in 2012, the Census Bureau projects.

Angey gets less than $1,000 monthly with her small pension from a school district and Social Security. She said her husband earns a bit more.

Angey was among participants in an AARP report released last month that showed more than a third of people 65 and older described their financial situation at midyear as worse than it was 12 months before. It was a huge jump from the 13% of adults 65 and older who said the same thing in January.

The older adults were among 4,817 adults aged 30 and over who participated in a semiannual survey fielded in July across all 50 states and the District of Columbia by the independent social research organization NORC at the University of Chicago on behalf of AARP. The margin of error was plus or minus 2.57%.

While a large share of people in all age groups described difficult financial struggles this year, a breakdown by age showed that older people are much more pessimistic about their own economic futures. While nearly half of adults ages 30-49 said they thought their finances would improve over 12 months, only a little more than a quarter of people 50 and older thought the same thing.

The financial insecurity that inflation has caused this year has forced many older adults to make difficult decisions, said Dana Kennedy, AARP director for Arizona.

“Many people are living on a fixed income and have cut back, or are even delaying retirement,” said Kennedy.

Survey participant Frank Hiller, 62, of Eastampton, New Jersey, said the higher prices have caused him to rethink when to retire, and whether he and his wife will remain in their four-bedroom house in retirement.

“I used to think it would be 65, but now I’m thinking 67,” said Hiller who works as an auto technician at a car dealership. “And we had thought we’d stay in our house, but we’ll probably downsize. It’s a lot of space and costs a lot to keep up.”

Although Hiller’s family hasn’t had to make drastic changes to keep up with inflation, they have been re-examining their internet and cable TV package, wondering if they should finally drop the internet phone line.

Kennedy, of AARP Arizona, said spiraling apartment prices in her state have squeezed a lot of older adults out of the rental market.

Kasey Dungan, 73, said she feels fortunate to be with her 11-year-old mixed dachshund Sandy in a subsidized Phoenix apartment for older adults after falling into homelessness early this year.

Still, costs for food and other bills mean her entire Social Security check is gone by month’s end.

“I don’t have money to go to the show or anything,” said Dungan, a widow who does her own shopping and cooking even though she sometimes uses a rolling walker.

She said she’s looking forward to next month, when millions of Social Security recipients will get an 8.7% boost in their benefits that will be eaten up in part by rising costs.

The average recipient will receive over $140 more monthly in the largest cost-of living adjustment in more than 40 years. About 70 million people, including retirees, disabled people and children, receive Social Security benefits.

“I’m hoping it will help me to buy more groceries, especially with inflation the way it is,” said Dungan, who counts on a monthly food box for older adults through a federal program to get enough to eat.

Phoenix resident Lois Nyman, who just turned 85, said she’s lucky to have her health and able to augment her Social Security payments with a part-time job as an adjunct community college instructor coordinating clinical experience for future nurses at local hospitals.

Still, she said, inflation has made things a bit tighter this year, which means she and her neighbor go out to dinner about once a month now rather than every week.

“For Thanksgiving I just bought a couple of turkey legs instead of a whole turkey,” said Nyman, who lives with a son in his 60s. “I can’t believe how much more things now cost at the grocery store. I try to go when things are on sale, down to the same prices as a year ago.”

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