Putting retirement on hold

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - Her passion for kids and medicine is what led 61-year-old Joyce Christian to become a school nurse.  She's worked for 40 years in schools, hospitals and even for the military.  Christian planned to retire at 60 and help care for her 98-year-old mother in Virginia.  But, the recession cut retirement out of the picture.

"That was the turning point," Christian said.

From September 2007 to December 2008, an AARP public policy report showed 401Ks and individual retirement accounts, or IRAs, lost $2.5 trillion. That's about 30 percent of their value.

"It's like a rude awakening. My husband and I have been investing for several years and that investment is almost like half. I also have deferred compensation through the school that was also like half," Christian said.

Though the economy has kept some seniors working longer, the Labor Department said their numbers were actually growing before the recession hit. In the past ten years, there's been a 46 percent increase in workers age 65 and older, compared to 21 percent among workers overall.

For Christian, working past 60 wasn't originally in the plan.  But, with the help of her family, faith and co-workers, she said she's accepted her decision without any regrets.

"The writing was on the wall, and it was early enough for me to actually realize that I needed to stay at my job.  I love my job so I enjoy coming to work every day," Christian said.

The same can be said for Virginia Schonewitz.

"I just like my job. I like to get up and come to work," Schonewitz said.

For 23 years, she's worked as a Customer Service Manager at Walmart.  At 66, Schonewitz collects social security. With two checks coming in, she said she works primarily for the social interaction.

"It feels good to stay active. You don't just want to sit home and your life just fades away, so get up get out and do something."

By 2016, the Labor Department projects an 80 percent increase in workplace numbers among two groups, those 65 and up and those 75 and up. As long as she stays healthy, Schonewitz said she doesn't mind being part of that growing trend.

"Keep going. Keep positive. Do the things you want to do, don't just sit back and become old. Keep young. That's it, keep young," Schonewitz said.

For 59-year-old Beverly Warden, remaining in the workforce wasn't the issue. It was re-entering the workforce during a recession.

"I had looked for a job for more than a year, and it's not easy for a senior now to get a job. I know jobs are scarce now, but for seniors it really is difficult," Schonewitz said.

Overall, the unemployment rate for older workers has been lower. However, according to that AARP study, unemployment among seniors is pacing 15 percent higher than that of workers overall.

Warden said she was fortunate to find the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SECEP).  It offers seniors paid, temporary work up to four years with government and community service organizations.

Funded by the Department of Labor, SECEP helps people 55 and older in 15 counties across the state. The program's director, Janice Hale, said a large majority of the host agencies have gone on to hire people after six months or a year's internship.

"It's a wonderful, gratifying experience, and I just think it'd be wonderful for any senior looking for employment," Schonewitz said.

Warden never thought she'd be working at her age, but said her family needs the financial support.

"My husband got cancer, had open heart surgery and five back surgeries.  Like I say, you don't plan these things but they do happen, and they happen more often than what you think. Then you're put in a position when you really need to go to work, not just for the extra money but I need health insurance," Warden said.

Out of the workforce for many years, 58-year-old Hale said she understands the plights of the people she helps.

"I woke up one day, opened up my bank statement and went, 'Oooohhh, I need to go back to work.' So here I am. I understand how very terrifying it is to try to get back into the workforce when you're afraid that your credentials or your background may not measure up to those 20 or 30-year-olds who are just coming out of college," Hale said.

"This was just a blessing when I heard about it.  It has offered me a chance to enhance my skills, improve my skills and learn new skills," said Warden.

Beverly Warden's story is one Stephen Byrne hears quite often.  As a retirement financial planner, Byrne advises seniors who need to go back to work.

"The biggest unforeseen that we see is healthcare, medical is number one.  The longer you live, the bad news is you run the risk of outliving your money," Byrne said.

With that in mind, Byrne said we have to revamp the way we think when it comes to retirement in the 21st century.

"I think it's a mistake to focus solely on retirement. We need to focus on financial planning in all phases of our life and from there we just take one phase of our life and move it over smoothly to the next one," Byrne said.

Another mindset that needs to change, according to Hale, is how seniors are viewed in the workplace.

"Age is an asset; experience a terrific benefit. These are tried and true people. We've earned the right. We've gotten the wisdom and the experience, and it is the younger people who are going to lose out if they don't have the ability to work with older people. We have a lot to offer," Hale said.

Beverly Warden would agree with that.  After being on the job for some time now, she's found her return to the workforce very rewarding.

"It's a blessing. It's not just a paycheck. You have that self-gratification that you are helping others. It's a wonderful experience. It's a wonderful feeling," Warden said.

Seniors are working longer for a variety of reasons.  The growth of their numbers in the workplace will no doubt change the way we do business.

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