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Successful Aging: Am I too sensitive to how my younger colleagues speak to me?

I am 80 years old and work one day a week for a hospital assuming responsibility for the food for two events involving thousands of hospital employees, plus doing some occasional bookkeeping. The folks I work for used to work for me when I was employed as the director of all food services for 12 hospitals. Recently, several colleagues are reminding me to do “this” or “that.” I know what I am doing like the back of my hand. I am wondering if they think that because of my age, I am forgetful or less competent? I actually felt a bit insulted. Am I being too sensitive? P.S. I recently said to them I couldn’t make an early morning meeting because “I wasn’t up to it.” In reality, I have a late-night poker card game the night before the meeting. T.S.

Dear T.S.

When there is a change in the behavior of a supervisor or colleague, it’s natural to question the reason why. Here are a few possibilities.

Some higher-ups might be reviewing the event for an unknown reason creating pressure and uncertainties. It might just be an edgy time where folks are tired, overworked and short on diplomacy. You also might have made a small error somewhere at some time that has triggered the usual confidence others have in you. Finally, it might be a bit of ageism, making assumptions about your competency just because you are 80 years old.

Let’s talk about the larger context of the subject: older workers and employment.

Actually, the news is rather good.

In 1985, Americans age 65 and older made up about 11 percent of the workforce. In 2017, that percentage increased to 19.3 percent meaning that almost one out of five employees in the workforce was 65 years or older according to AARP. So that’s the labor force view.

Now let’s focus on the population of older adults. Two-thirds of those ages 54 to 64 were working in 2018, and three in 10 of those ages 65 to 72 were working or looking for work, according to Pew Research Center data. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that employment is expected to increase fastest for those ages 65 to74 years and also for those age 75 and older through 2024.

Given these statistics, one would assume that older workers would have no problem with ageism. That may not be the case. What the data do not tell us how many are working part-time by choice or because they could not find full- time work. It does not tell us if the jobs pay them what they need or are worth or at a lower salary because their choices were limited. It does not tell if these older workers need to have multiple jobs to meet their expenses. Poverty or what is called income insecurity remains a problem for much of our older population.

According to the Social security Administration, 21 percent of married Social Security recipients and 43 percent of single recipients depend on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income (Social Security Administration, 2016). Over 25 million Americans aged 60 and older are considered economically insecure—living at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level ($29,425 per year for a single person). Millions of older adults struggle to meet their monthly expenses, even though according to the national poverty level, they are not considered impoverished.

As a society, we certainly have made progress. Yet financial struggles continue. Unanticipated long-term care and home-care expenses, cost of prescription drugs and adult children needing financial help often come as a surprise to older adults in their retirement years.

Now back to your question. It will be difficult to determine the exact reason you are receiving some unsolicited coaching. A conversation with your supervisor would help. You might say, “I just want to check in on how things are going with my work.” Also, consider telling a white lie about your reason for not attending the early morning meeting.

Perhaps you could let them know you had an appointment you could not cancel and that you will check in a little later for an update of the meeting. Saying “I’m not up to it” may reinforce age-stereotype thinking that older workers just can’t perform. If there is a mindset that older adults are less competent compared to younger folks, a negative attitude could easily be reinforced with such a statement. Of course, each situation and environment are different.

Thank you T.S. for your candid and important question. Enjoy your one day of work a week and have that important conversation.

Fortunately, many innovative programs, movements and activities are being launched to change the way we think about aging to make it more realistic. More on that next week.

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