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Older Floridians Return to Work as Living Costs Rise

By 2030, an estimated 12 percent of people ages 75 and older will be working, more than doubling from 2000, due to longer lifespans and rising costs of living. In Florida, soaring insurance rates add to financial pressures.

Larry Gesick couldn’t hear his alarm, so when it went off at 5 a.m., his wife nudged him awake. A half hour later, he was out the door — green polo tucked in, lunch cooler in hand.

While neighbors slept, Gesick ambled to his car, guided by street lamps and moonlight.

He is 77 years old, a Vietnam veteran and a great-grandfather to two. He’s also part of the fastest growing age group in the labor force: people 75 and older.

On that early morning in March, he was on his way to Publix for work.

Americans are living longer, and for some, continuing to work in their later years is a practical choice made for mental and social well-being. But for many, like Gesick, it’s also a matter of necessity.

Seniors work because they have to afford medical bills, mortgages, food and the occasional pleasure. Because their fixed incomes and drained savings accounts are no longer enough to keep them afloat as the cost of groceries, homeowners association fees and insurance rates soar. Because they’re one crisis from financial disaster and fear they won’t be able to afford assisted living if their health suddenly declines.

So around 5:30 a.m., Gesick left the Florida gated community where he and his wife, Joyce, bought a condo in 2021. This was supposed to be their final stop — a safe place to grow old together, where they’d spend their days riding bikes along the water and having lunch with friends.

Instead, Gesick readied himself for another eight-hour shift stocking shelves with salads and organic juices, lifting boxes of bananas and potatoes and pears.

For a time they were retired, but it didn’t last long.

The Gesicks moved to Florida from Arizona because they reckoned it’d be nice to be near the water and because Joyce had a daughter close by.

Larry had spent decades as an electrician, Joyce as a legal assistant. Though they’d had ups and downs with money, the pair had reasoned that between Larry’s military pension and Joyce’s Social Security, they had enough to get by.

For Joyce, 67, retirement meant an opportunity to reverse the back pain and general lethargy that had built over thousands of hours at a desk job. For Larry, who had grown up on a Colorado farm, it meant rest for his body — the first since adolescence.

In retirement, Larry enjoyed golfing with neighbors, retirees from Canada. Joyce liked gardening and picking her grandkids up from school.

What they loved most about retirement, though, was the time they got together. They’d take long walks and talk in a way that felt different than when they were working and tired. They had the energy to focus on each other.

But seven months in, their budget began to break. Suddenly, it seemed, everything was more expensive.

First it was groceries. Then car insurance. Then, their condo association fees shot up to $949 a month, almost double the rate from when they first moved in. Replacing aging appliances and installing hurricane windows to protect their home pushed them over the edge.

When Joyce looked over their list of monthly expenses reality sunk in.

They couldn’t make this last.

Walk into any store and you’ll see them: older adults working the cash register at Walmart, sweeping the floor at Target, manning the paint counter at Lowe’s. The number of seniors in the American workforce is growing at a rate greater than all other age groups combined. By 2030, a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report projects that nearly 12 percent of people ages 75 and older will be working, more than doubling the rate in 2000.

Florida is no exception.

One reason for the shift is simple: in the past, the window between retirement and death was shorter, maybe 15 years. Today, people who retire in their 60s may live well into their late 80s or 90s, so there’s a need for many to work longer.

Insufficient savings are another factor prompting older adults to keep working, said Laura Quinby, a researcher at Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research.

Nearly 80 percent of Americans believe there is a “retirement crisis” according to a report released this year by the National Institute on Retirement Security. More than half fear they won’t be financially secure when they retire — if the day ever comes.

A dearth of corporate pensions and fewer employer-sponsored savings plans mean that people are getting less help from their workplace than in the past, Quinby said. At the same time, people aren’t saving on their own. More than a third of Americans said they wouldn’t be able to pay for a $1,000 emergency without borrowing or taking on debt, according to a recent Bankrate survey.

In Florida, long a haven for aging Americans with dreams of beach life on a budget, there are environmental factors adding to the financial pressures. Worsening storms have driven up insurance rates for homeowners, and state legislation requiring condos to keep reserve funds for building repairs following the Surfside collapse have contributed to the burden. Meanwhile an influx of out-of-state residents saw housing prices soar.

For 76-year-old John DeCotret in Palm Harbor, re-entering the workforce after a year away was a decision made to maintain his standard of living. He wasn’t at risk of losing his home or going without food, but his social security wasn’t stretching as far. He was depleting his savings and growing more nervous each day.

DeCotret, who lives in a senior mobile home park, said many of his neighbors have experienced the same.

“They’ve had to cut back,” said DeCotret. “They’ve given up their automobiles. They’ve stopped buying meats.”

Now, DeCotret is working part-time as a social science researcher — the field from which he retired. Though it wasn’t his plan, he said there’s benefits to the return.

“I feel very pleased to resume working this year, for my mental health, frankly,” said DeCotret. “I feel reengaged and reinvigorated.”

In Dunedin, Denise Eberius, 65, is back at work, too.

A longtime customer service representative for Toys-R-Us, Eberius lost her job when the store closed in 2018. She was looking for another when her husband got cancer, and she paused her search to care for him. When he died in 2019, Eberius lost her partner of 35 years and the income from the pension he brought home as a retired police officer. She had to scramble to keep up with inflation.

“I had no choice but to go back to work,” said Eberius, who took a job as a secretary in 2021. “I never thought I’d be in this position because we were supposed to grow old together. I never thought I’d be alone.”

She said she thinks about the cost of living almost daily.

“It’s on everyone’s mind,” she said.

In St. Petersburg, 71-year-old Cindy Burns said retirement has always felt out of reach.

“I’ll likely be working for the rest of my life,” said Burns, who is preparing to become a Medicare agent after a decades-long career in sales.

Burns is single, never been married. Though she didn’t bear the costs of raising children, she said living independently has come with a hefty price tag. And there’s no one around to split the bills.

Burns didn’t grow up with wealth, and she doesn’t have savings to fall back on.

“I have girlfriends whose parents made sure they had investments and stocks and bonds. It’s like they were given a golden parachute, and I wasn’t,” Burns said. “But I’m very upbeat. I try to make the best of it.”

So for now, she holds her head up and keeps working.

Still, the question looms: what will happen after she no longer can?

While Larry put in hours at Publix, back at the condo, Joyce Gesick sat in front of two giant monitors and scanned court filings for her remote job with a legal agency. A decorative sign with the words “SUN & FUN” and “NOT A CARE” hung at the room’s entrance.

For Joyce, returning to work came with a hint of embarrassment.

Neither she nor Larry had grown up with money. Like Burns, no one had told them what to save or how to invest. Over the years, they hadn’t splurged on fancy cars or elaborate vacations, but they also hadn’t squirreled much away.

Larry didn’t start saving for retirement until he was 50. When he got back from Vietnam, there were years lost to trauma. Planning for the future wasn’t top of mind.

Though Joyce had always been budget-conscious, a previous marriage and divorce set her back, too.

Now, each morning when she walks the 10 feet from her bedroom to the desk in their guest room to sit for eight hours of work at $14.50 an hour, she struggles to shake the feeling of shame.

“We always tried to do the right thing, but I guess it just wasn’t enough. You wonder where the money you worked for all your lives went,” Joyce said. “It’s like we failed in some way.”

She knew they weren’t the only ones in this position, that compared to others, they were doing quite well. Still, talking about finances had always been taboo, and there was a pang of guilt that washed over her every time she said no to plans because she was working or because the money just wasn’t there.

The hardest part, Joyce and Larry agreed, was knowing that they were up against time.

So much of life felt left to chance, Joyce said. When you bought your house, when you sold. When you got into the stock market, when you cashed out. When you saved, when you splurged, and whether either was the right call.

Joyce’s ancestors hailed from Ireland, and the couple wanted to take a trip. When her grandmother was dying, she told Joyce that never visiting had been her biggest regret.

Joyce didn’t want regrets — not when it came to her time. But she also didn’t want to feel irresponsible.

So for now, she click-clacked on her keyboard. In moments when she was especially down or frustrated, she looked at the orange post-it notes stuck to a picture frame on the nearby dresser: scrawl from Larry, reminding her she’s loved.

When Larry got home around 3:30 p.m., he idled in the kitchen while Joyce finished upstairs.

After she logged off around 4:30, they heated their dinners — pasta with shrimp, from the freezer — and ate side-by-side from trays propped in front of the television. A Welsh mystery played as they sat largely in silence.

These days, more than anything, Joyce and Larry miss quality time together. They yearn to be out in the world, eating pizza on the sand in Gulfport and watching $5 movie matinees. But weekdays are exhausting. By the time they make it to the end of the workday, they often opt to sit and rest at home.

It depresses Joyce to think about their time slipping away, but recently, a glimmer of hope has presented itself. She ran the numbers, and if all goes according to plan, they could have the appliances and storm windows paid off by this time next year.

That lift, she thinks, might be enough for them to retire — again.

©2024 Tampa Bay Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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