They work hard for their money

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Mary Gustafson, McKnight's Staff Writer
Mary Gustafson, McKnight's Staff Writer
It's been hard to miss the onslaught of news stories recently highlighting the “graying of the workforce,” that is, the economic trend of baby boomers opting not to retire due to the struggling economy.

To be sure, the recession has depleted nest eggs and thrown a wrench in the plans of many a retiree. And with politicians proposing to increase the Medicare eligibility age to hold down government spending, this trend is likely to continue.

But I've noticed is that many of these stories fail to mention that some older Americans enjoy working beyond the retirement age. When good health allows it, I find this to be an admirable trait. But then again, I've always had a good model for that.

I grew up spending weekends and summers working in my family's hardware store, where even my grandparents worked 20 to 25 years longer than they needed to. After my grandfather died (he worked until he was 86), my dad and uncle continued my grandfather's habit of hiring older employees, many of whom were retired. I've seen some of the employees return to work after strokes, surgeries and joint replacements, and a host of other illnesses.

As a high schooler and college student, I was by far the youngest employee when I worked there. I'd be lying if I didn't confess that most of the older employees could have run circles around me — they were more likely to remember where the Allen wrenches and other things were displayed than I was. I learned a lot from these loyal, dedicated employees about taking pride in my work and dealing with cranky customers. I can only hope I wasn't an insufferable teenager to work with.

So I was troubled to read this Time magazine article about the uncertain fate of Walmart greeters who worry their part-time jobs may soon be coming to an end. The big-box chain is implementing a plan to move its elderly employees farther into the store, where they can help customers find what they need. And while I think that's a step in the right direction, the employees themselves are worried they are being phased out.

As the article points out: “The greeter's job became identified with the troubling trend of more seniors needing a job; it came to symbolize the vaporized dream of a comfortable retirement for many Americans. That's not Walmart's fault. But it may be one more reason to remove greeters from the front door.”

Needless to say, I was heartened to read about a Stanford University aging expert who extolled the virtues of living in a rapidly aging society.

"We have presumed, even in science, that age is associated with decline," says Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. “But it turns out that's not true. The profile for aging is much more nuanced. There is decline, but there are also improvements — in emotional functioning, improvements in knowledge. If you have a large population of emotionally stable, knowledgeable and relatively healthy old people, that's a good resource."

Nobody knows this better than long-term care professionals. Consider the experience of Evelyn Wenzel, who at the age of 90 is the oldest nursing home CNA in the state of South Dakota, according to the Argus Leader. Wenzel, who still works two or more days per week, has been with Avera Bormann Manor in Parkston, SD, for 40 years.

Despite her age, Wenzel's duties are the same as every other CNA's: answering call lights, helping residents get into and out of the bathtub and so forth. Only 10 of the facility's 50 residents are older than she is.

The administrator Wenzel works for clearly appreciates her just as much as I appreciated the older hardware store employees I worked with.

“She's a real trooper: a work ethic beyond reproach, dedicated, probably the most caring person you would ever find. If you've got a loved one,” the administrator observed, “that's who you'd want to take care of them.”

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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.

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