Davich: Seniors still working point to rewards, work ethic
By Jerry Davich firstname.lastname@example.org April 8, 2013 3:33PM
Part-time Bailiff Sydney Cummings, 77, of Gary poses for a photo in the Traffic & Criminal Court at the Gary Municipal Building on April 4, 2013. | Jim Karczewski~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 10, 2013 6:07AM
A court bailiff. A church pastor. A home health care worker. An office manager. A social worker. And a strip joint bartender.
It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but instead it’s a good sampling of jobs from Northwest Indiana seniors 65 and older who continue to work.
In a previous column, I noted Gayle Wright, a 71-year-old Merrillville woman who works at C&M Liquors in Gary. She’s been there 10 years, after working at Methodist Hospital in Gary for 35 years — the first African-American woman in that facility’s admissions department, she said.
“Back then, they still had segregated hospital beds,” Wright told me.
After meeting her, I wondered how many other seniors over 65 are still in our region’s workforce, and for what reasons. The money? To stay active? To serve a purpose? To nurture a new identity? Retirement boredom?
I heard from dozens of seniors, working at jobs across the region and also from across the spectrum of careers. Truck drivers. Convenience store workers. Office workers. Even a computer guru who works from her home.
The rising ranks of senior workers here echoes a national trend, with an estimated 25 percent of Americans ages 65 to 74 still in the labor force, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. That figure drops to 6 percent for seniors 75 and older, for obvious reasons. Indiana’s figures are slightly lower for both categories, but not by much.
“It keeps me active and engaged, and I want to do it for as long as I can,” said 77-year-old Sidney Cummings of Gary, a part-time bailiff in Gary City Court.
He’s been there 20 years and has worked for three or four judges during his stint, he noted.
Cummings retired as a physical education teacher for the Gary Schools Corp. in 1997 after a 40-year career. Courtroom visitors still call him “coach.”
He works roughly eight hours a week and enjoys helping courtroom newcomers by pointing out how things work there, which judges are on duty, and other daily information.
Cummings also volunteers at South Gleason Park Golf Course, which is under new management and on the upswing, he said.
His paychecks account for only 20 percent of the reason he continues to work well into his golden years.
“The other 80 percent is helping people out and doing my job efficiently,” he told me.
Sharron Van Kooten, age 70, was recently asked by her doctor how long she planned to continue working.
“For as long as I can,” she replied, echoing what most working seniors told me.
“For practical reasons, I need the money since there is very little left from my Social Security benefits after paying supplemental insurance and prescriptions,” the Griffith grandmother explained. “But there are many rewards.”
She works for her two sons at Intervention Services in Lowell, where her job as office manager includes answering the phone, talking with clients, making plane reservations, coordinating the interventionists, and other office work.
“Because we get to help families get back together and help people get their lives back on track, I find the job emotionally rewarding,” she said.
Her biggest reward is being able to see her sons and grandchildren on a daily basis, watching them grow as the company grows. She, too, is growing through her improved office skills, most recently by signing up for a Microsoft Office course, unbeknownst to her sons (until now).
Her previous jobs were as a blackjack dealer for 10 years at Trump Casino in Gary, and as a waitress for more than 20 years.
“Until my health gives out, I will continue to make the trek here,” she said. “It’s a labor of love.”
Similar to most every senior I spoke with, working and breathing have been synonymous in their long lives.
“It’s like reading a newspaper every morning. They just go together for people of our generation,” one older worker told me.
Lu Krieger-Blake is a social worker at Pines Village Retirement Communities in Valparaiso, where she continues to work past age 65 for several reasons.
“I wanted to pad my retirement savings because after 40 years of work at nonprofit agencies, I do not have a pension,” said Blake, who retired from the VNA Hospice after 25 years of service. “But I also wanted to continue doing work that I love and use the skills I have developed throughout my life.
Blake has been a social worker her entire career — her “life’s mission and heart’s work” — but it was a full time job with plenty of driving and often being on call. At Pines Village, she works four days a week.
“I continue to do work I love and which benefits others whom I serve,” she said.
She was pleasantly surprised that her “hospice skills” were transferable to her new job, where older adults also have life transitions and losses. Along the way, she can keep padding her retirement savings account.
“Most of all I am pleased I have still been able to contribute creatively to enhancing the lives of others,” she said. “That is why I am still a working woman.”
Nancy Lawrence, 74, of Valparaiso, shared a similar pride in her job at Help at Home, Inc., with an office located near her home.
Roughly three nights each week, she visits the homes of elderly shut-ins with health problems or people with disabilities.
“It’s just a few hours a week, about as part-time as you can get. But it’s so fulfilling,” said Lawrence, who has 10 grandkids and 13 great-grandkids.
Lawrence is a former bartender and convenience store worker, but interacting with the public on a daily basis wore on her tolerance.
“People can be so nasty,” she sighed.
Lawrence and the other senior workers should serve as role models for younger generations who find so many reasons to not work or work hard at their jobs.
“I hope we make the younger generations envious of our work ethic,” she quipped.