IOWA CITY — A 58-year-old West Liberty man has stage four chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, an intense respiratory failure disease that requires him to rely on an oxygen machine around the clock and prevents him from working.
Much of his costly medical expenses for this disease widely known as COPD aren’t covered by Medicare.
So, his 59-year-old wife, Debby Bell, uses her health benefits as a University of Iowa employee to cover the cost of Jeffrey Bell’s checkups, prescriptions and medical machines that supply him oxygen and stimulate normal breathing. One prescription is for an inhaler that costs more than $500 a month. Checkups are required every six months and include an echocardiogram costing $1,500.
“There’s no way a normal person can pay that,” Bell said. “Even someone with a much better job than I have … you could go broke real quick.”
Bell is one of many Iowans nearing retirement age driving an increase in older workers — many remaining in the work force because of the high cost of health care that their life savings cannot cover. The Pew Research Center reports that 10,000 baby boomers hit retirement age every day.
The youngest are starting to retire at age 54, according to the senior advocacy group, AARP. But most aren’t leaving the labor market. The number of boomers in the work force shows a steady 4.5 percent increase since 2014, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. An estimated 9.7 million Americans age 65 and older were in the U.S. work force, the U.S. Census Bureau reported last year.
Without the health benefits that go with Debby Bell’s employment at the U of I’s Burge Market Place, the couple would not have been able to pay their mortgage or utility bills, she said. She is approaching retirement but fears it won’t be an option if she doesn’t have decent health insurance to supplement Medicare and cover prescription medicines for her and her husband.
“The insurance we have here at the university is a lot — it’s very good,” Bell, who has worked at the U of I since 1983 and who has a TIAA retirement package, said. “And if it wasn’t for that, we probably would’ve been homeless. We would have had to get rid of our house and sell everything that we had because of medical bills.”
Bell is part of the baby boomer generation born between 1946 and 1965 following World War II. Since then, health care options in the United States have grown greatly, allowing people to live longer, healthier lives.
Retirement age is relatively subjective, and while most retirement plans in the United States set the bar at 65, the nation’s largest aging advocacy organization, AARP, allows people to join at age 50. Social Security retirement benefits don’t kick in until 62, and full benefits aren’t reached until the age of 66.
A decline of pension funds after the economic depression in 2008 led to real concerns for baby boomer life savings, said Cal Halvorsen, assistant professor of social work at Boston College. Halvorsen studies the experiences and outcomes of individuals who work later in their life.
“Combined, you should have a financially secure savings fund,” Halvorsen said. “Pension funds are declining though, and older individuals have to rely on personal savings and Social Security. Some of these individuals are in poverty and are forced to re-enter the workforce.”
Although Debby Bell works to pay for her husband’s health care, she said she also enjoys her job. Working at one of the university’s dining halls has exposed Bell to a new experiences and diversity in people that she said she appreciates.
But Bell said she doesn’t have the luxury of dipping into personal savings because that money pays to care for her husband’s stage 4 chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Jeffrey is on a 24-hour oxygen defibrillator to ensure his respiratory system doesn’t fail him, contributing to his perpetual state of codependency on medications and medical equipment to keep him alive and as healthy as he can be.
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Sara Sanders, a UI professor and director of the School of Social Work, said most of the people she’s encountered in social work stay employed because of poverty. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 209,000 Americans age 65 or older were working in 2017, the last year for which data are available, because they couldn’t afford to stop working.
More than 7 million people over the age of 60 in the United States live below the poverty line, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Many of these older workers taking jobs to pay bills also are caregivers for someone, Sanders said.
Sanders referred to a woman she met in the southside Chicago suburb of Harvey. Sanders didn’t give the woman’s name to protect her identity. This woman was an 83-year-old African-American when Sanders met her. She still was working because she had no other options for financial support. If she quit, she faced imminent poverty, homelessness and hunger, Sanders said.
The woman never had a pension or access to retirement. As the mother of seven children, the woman was pushing herself to be the sole provider for some of the children who had been in and out of jail.
Aging work force
The continuation of older workers in the labor market has brought about suggestions that they are replacing younger workers, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report that forecasts workers aged 65 to 74 will increase by 4.5 percent, and workers aged 16 to 24 will shrink by 1.4 percent. But older workers are not taking jobs from younger ones, University of Iowa Department of Economics Chairman John Solow said.
Solow said the decrease in younger workers exists because the nation’s birth rate has gone down and women are waiting longer to have children. A jobs rebound since the great recession in 2008 and a growing supply of older workers to fill jobs is driving the labor market, he said.
Rosemary Thierer, executive officer of the Iowa Department on Aging Administration and Staffing, said ageism exists in the job market, as 40 percent of people aged 50 to 60 and wanting to work still are unemployed 12 months after they’ve been laid off.
“People have a lot of preconceived notions about what older people can and cannot do, such as the inability to operate technology,” Thierer said. “If you’re 50, you’re probably not going to retire until 10 to 15 years later because you’re forced to work longer in order to get more out of their Social Security benefits.”
Thierer said baby boomers have worked basic jobs in sales and food service, earning $7.25 per hour, and cannot afford to retire. Meanwhile, she said, Iowa is desperate for workers.
While the unemployment rate in Iowa was 2.4 percent at the end of 2018, the average age of an Iowa worker is higher than the national average, according to The Center on Aging and Work. That means older workers not only are working longer but are the primary market for employers in Iowa with a 66.8 percent participation rate in the workforce.
“One of the reasons that McDonalds are choosing older workers is because they are showing up,” Thierer said. “Older workers are more reliable than younger workers, and they can have positive influences on the younger workers. It’s important for all the generations to work together in the workforce because they can all learn something from each other.”
This story was a collaboration of the Daily Iowan and the IowaWatch the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch, a non-profit, online news website that collaborates with news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting. Read more at www.IowaWatch.org.