As we begin to open up our region and come out of the safer-at-home phase of COVID-19, let’s pause to consider its impact on our aging adults — one of the groups hardest hit by the pandemic. The work of Innovations in Aging Collaborative, the lead nonprofit organization coordinating the city’s Age Friendly Colorado Springs initiative, provides a good framework for this.
The action plan for AFCOS reflects an intergenerational approach — a community good for an 8-year-old is good for an 80-year-old. It focuses on eight domains of livability. The Civic Participation and Employment domain has this vision: That residents of all ages have equal opportunity for employment — this includes both paid and unpaid opportunities.
As our region struggles to regain economic stability amid rising unemployment and loss of jobs and businesses, finding employment will be particularly challenging for aging adults in our community.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in Colorado Springs as of April was 12.3 percent, compared to 6.2 percent in March and 3.3 percent last April. People in all age groups from scores of occupations are represented in this data.
However, a May 13 article by Kaiser Family Foundation titled “Older Adults Are Hit Hard by COVID-19 — and Also Losing Jobs,” reports that the youngest and oldest age cohorts came in first and second in April’s unemployment numbers. Nationally, unemployment rates for 16- to 24-year-olds was 27.4 percent and for those ages 65 and older it was 15.6 percent, which had quadrupled between March and April. More than 1 in 5 of the nearly 23 million Americans who are now unemployed are older adults (55+), the article states.
Is there a story behind this story? According to the American Society on Aging that cited analysis from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, older workers are disproportionately represented in jobs that have high economic and health risks and are underrepresented in so-called “safe jobs” where employees can work from home. The analysis further shows that almost one-third of workers older than 50 face the risk of illness from exposure to COVID-19 and/or premature retirement. It states that the U.S. workforce has never been older since U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics record keeping began in 1948.
I interviewed a local resident whose personal experience validated this research. Sharon (not her real name) is 62 years old. Prior to COVID-19, she worked full time for a home health services agency caring for seniors. Her work ceased at the beginning of the stay-at-home phase and that continues today. She now works 10 hours a week caring for two clients who were comfortable having a home care worker in their house.
Sharon’s daughter was also furloughed from her job in a senior rehab facility. Two of Sharon’s 13 grandchildren live with her. With the entire family home for almost three months, her utility bills have also gone up.
Sharon described the impact on her financially. “I filed for unemployment for the first time in my life,” she said. “It was a challenge to understand how to apply, but I was finally successful and approved.”
When her unemployment kicks in, she will use it to catch up on her rent.
“I’ve never before been late on my rent,” she said. “My Silver Key case manager helped me work through issues with utilities and food stamps. I look forward to going back to work full time as I need the income, but it is scary due to my age, my work with the elderly and my own underlying health conditions.”
Boiling it down, older workers who have been employed in retail, health care, manual labor and food services will suffer the most. Other more highly educated older workers in professional fields like technical services or management will fare much better.
According to an article by Patrick Roden on aginginplace.com titled “COVID-19 Boomer Career Skills,” a useful mantra for boomers might be, “Learn. UnLearn. ReLearn. COVID-19 has disrupted aging. Learning new things, unlearning them, and relearning has always been important — now it is essential for survival.”
This may present a strategy that IIAC and its community partners employ in their work in the Civic Participation and Employment Domain as income loss and premature retirement threaten our aging adults.
All are welcome to join in this important work: Learn. UnLearn. ReLearn.
BJ Scott, an advocate for age-friendly workplaces, is the former CEO of Peak Vista Community Health Centers and its foundation. She is a co-founder and current board member of IIAC and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.