Still Working After All These Years

Ho-Mei Chen, 65, a nurse at Holy Cross Hospital, said that she enjoys the work but that financial considerations are a factor in her decision not to retire.
Ho-Mei Chen, 65, a nurse at Holy Cross Hospital, said that she enjoys the work but that financial considerations are a factor in her decision not to retire. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By N.C. Aizenman and Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 14, 2007

It was 77 degrees outside. Not a cloud in the sky. Just the sort of weekday that 65-year-old Ho-Mei Chen once imagined she'd be spending in the park with her grandchildren. Or on which 68-year-old hospital administrator Marie Warren once pictured herself tending to her begonias. Or on which 68-year-old medical staff services director Joan Morton might have gone out for a lazy lunch with her two best friends.

Instead, all three women were at work inside Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, among the nearly one in three Washington area residents 65 to 74 who are postponing retirement beyond the age at which most Americans used to consider it a right.

"Sure, there are mornings when I wake up and think, 'It sure would be nice to call in sick,' " Morton said. "But I guess when I turned 65, I found that I just wasn't ready to retire. . . . Plus, I wanted to get myself in a financially more stable place. . . . It's no joke living on a fixed income."

The trend is national: From 2000 to 2006, the proportion of the nation's 65- to 74-year-olds who remained in the labor force increased from nearly one in five to one in four, according to census figures released this week.

When employees decide to postpone retirement, it can present complications to employers. Morton speaks of working past 70, but she swears she will not be like a recent retiree who stayed on at the hospital even as her faculties became diminished.

"It was awkward," Morton said. "She was very well liked. So you don't want to just say, 'It's time for you to go.' You hope they make the decision on their own."

Still, most employers welcome older workers, said Arthur Rothkopf, senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"Across the country, our members have been telling us that there is a really significant shortage of skilled workers out there, and I'm talking about everything from sophisticated computer engineers to auto technicians to the people who install air conditioning," he said. "Seniors are some of the most skilled members of the workforce. So there is a real incentive for these companies to find ways to hire and keep them."

Kevin Dameron, chief engineer at a downtown Washington building, certainly appreciates the dedication of longtime security guard William L. Johnson, who is 85.

"I can set my watch by him. He's here every day at quarter to seven sharp," Dameron said. "In general, older people are more reliable, and they take their responsibilities more seriously."

Nowhere, perhaps, is that sense of responsibility more evident than in the Washington area, where many members of the region's highly educated workforce seem determined to remain professionally engaged until their last breath.

"We have a lot of Type A people in this region. They're compulsive. They don't want to get out of the loop, because if you get out of the loop in this town, you are out," said Russell E. Morgan, president of the Washington-based nonprofit SPRY Foundation, which seeks ways to keep people healthy and fulfilled as they age.

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