A Fiscal Lesson for the Ages
For Some, the Economic Turmoil Is a Grim Reminder of Past Crises. For Others, It Marks a New Fear. Across the Region and Across the Spectrum, Residents Are Adjusting to Changes in Their Fortunes.

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 2008

Surviving on fixed incomes, pinched by rising prices and worried about their financial assets, many seniors in the Washington area are being forced to scale back already modest lifestyles or are trying to return to work to make ends meet in an increasingly weak economy.

At the Jewish Council for the Aging in Montgomery County, which operates a job training and placement program for seniors with annual incomes of less than $13,000, officials said they have been swamped with applicants who want to make themselves marketable again.

"Seniors are closer to the Depression era than any other part of the population. They know what can happen, and they fear it," said David Ganzey, executive director of the council. "They worry they will outlive their savings. We are getting calls every day, and, for the first time in a very long time, we have a waiting list."

Joe Saunders, 74, a dapper former electronics businessman, lives on $600 a month. He finished the training and stopped by the Bethesda office last week to see whether any job interviews were available.

"I had a good career in electronics. I had my own company. I was successful, and people believed in me. But now here I am, putting on a suit and tie again and looking for a job," he said. "I probably can't work as hard as I once did, but I have good health and a good outlook. What I don't have is much wiggle room -- I will take just about anything I am offered."

Experts say the financial crisis has affected older Americans in several ways, depending on their age and sources of income and whether they are nearing retirement or are retired.

Jean Setzfand, director of financial security for AARP, said only retirees with guaranteed streams of lifetime income above Social Security are "insulated from all the turmoil now." Millions of others, she said, don't know how to protect their savings and how to postpone dipping into retirement funds.

"Half of it is emotional, and half of it is real," Setzfand said. "Confidence has a lot to do with how people perceive their circumstances. People's confidence has been eroded now, so they are paying more attention. They want to know if their money is safe. We tell our members, 'Don't act on your emotions, don't make rash decisions, have confidence in financial institutions.' "

Some low-income seniors, too far down the economic ladder to have investments, are finding themselves in need of emergency aid for the first time. At Emmaus Services for the Aging, a nonprofit organization that helps 1,000 seniors in the District, requests for emergency financial aid have increased 38 percent in the past year.

"For the vulnerable elderly, it means making hard choices when they go to the grocery store," said the Rev. Joseph K. Williams Sr., Emmaus executive director, referring to the trickledown effect of the country's financial crisis. "And those who have more money are now feeling what those who live marginally have felt for a long time."

In the lunch room of one Emmaus center in Northwest Washington last week, the mood was a mixture of indignation and worry.

"I live on a fixed income, and I pay more than $200 a month for health insurance that doesn't even cover my glasses," said Juanita Greene, 67, who retired in 2005 after 30 years with Head Start. "Things have gotten a lot worse, especially this year. Eggs have gone from a dollar to $1.99 a dozen. My money runs out before the month is over."

Margaret Black, 75, a retired day-care dietician, said she never has enough money to pay all her bills. "What I want to know is, why do these big corporations get bailed out even if they do something wrong? If we run out of money, nobody helps us."

For seniors attempting to return to work, even retired professionals can face daunting obstacles, including outdated skills, competition from younger workers, lack of transportation and the dilemma of reduced Social Security benefits, which decrease proportionally if a retiree begins earning substantial full-time wages.

The job training service run by the Jewish Council for the Aging has a full roster of 77 participants. They train on computer and office skills while earning minimum wage for part-time work at nonprofit centers, then interview for full-time jobs.

Nellie Melman, 82, was once a medical doctor in the Ukraine who worked in a U.S. laboratory for 14 years before retiring in 2004. But she couldn't make ends meet and is now in an intensive computer class.

"I have Social Security, but it is not enough to pay for my apartment, to buy my food and medicine. Even the nonprescription kinds are going up," said Melman, who takes two buses to reach the Bethesda program. "I look in the papers, but it is difficult."

For more affluent area retirees who live in senior condo complexes or paid-off houses and have investments to fall back on, the financial crisis is a subject of constant concern but not acute worry.

One senior who sleeps soundly is Ken Stuart, 85, a retired architect and Army officer who lives in a middle-income condo complex in Silver Spring. Stuart said he learned to be frugal while growing up during the Depression and invested in low-interest certificates of deposit instead of stocks when he sold his house several years ago.

"I told my friends I did not want to get rich, I just wanted to secure my principal," Stuart said. "Well, I still have my principal, and I assume it is still secure. I stopped by my bank branch the other day and asked if my money was okay. They said yes, don't worry. My needs are modest, and unless everything collapses, I should be fine."

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