The New Way of Talking About Death and Dying

Elders and Unemployment

[EDITORIAL NOTE: This post just plain got away from me – it's way too long and I don't have time now to edit. Perhaps it's worth it in that hardly anyone reports on what unemployment without benefits is like in real life. You'll decide if it's too much information.]

Following the two-week holiday break, Congress and President Barack Obama return to work today. In his weekly address to the nation, the president, according to The New York Times,

”...insisted on Saturday that lawmakers make restoring unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans who are out of work their 'first order of business' in the new year.”

As you undoubtedly know, Congress members went back to their states having refused to include in the new, two-year budget an extension of the emergency program that provides 47 additional weeks of supplemental unemployment payments for the long-term unemployed.

Most reporting on the effects of unemployment cite lots of studies and statistics about the effect on the economy but leave out the stories of what it means to real people in real life - the day-to-day, grind of trying to survive, the fear of maybe never working again and, of particular interest to me, what that means to older workers.

One of the few things I have learned from my own experience in life is that if it has happened to me or if something is true for me, it has also happened to thousands and thousands of other people. Nothing about my experience is ever unique and that's why this, today's post, is so awfully, terribly sad.

As it turns out, I have a good deal of up close and personal experience with long-term unemployment that will affect me until I die so I think it's worth recounting what happened to me.

My first big bout of unemployment – 14 months – happened in 1999, when I was 58 years old. I arrived at work on a Monday morning at the internet startup where I was vice president of editorial and video development to find the office door padlocked.

I never did find the owner; she had absconded owing me about $24,000 in pay and expenses and, since I had been employed as an independent contractor, was not eligible for unemployment benefits.

Because I am discussing the personal, day-to-day trial of unemployment today, I will leave the ageism in job searching for another time but keep in mind that it is a constant, additional, debilitating factor. Here, then, are some of the things that happened to me.

Some Common Facts of Unemployment
“Fortunately” (note the ironic quotation marks), I had accumulated a bunch of credit cards. I took cash advances that helped support me but which, after awhile, mostly went to servicing the debt on each other – robbing a Peter credit card to pay – interest only – a Paul card.

When the amount of debt was beginning to scare me, I took a big gulp and began cashing in my 401(k) accounts losing a huge chunk of the money to tax penalties for early withdrawal. Before I was done, those accounts were empty.

I have always been good, when necessary, at frugality. Early on, I canceled all subscriptions and cable TV. I learned to live in a colder house in winter and never, ever turned on the air conditioner in summer – just a handful of days of cooling could double the electric bill.

At first, I cut the frequency of my $9 manicures in half, to bi-weekly, and then stopped them altogether. Nine dollars had come to be a large portion of my weekly food budget.

If you have ever been as cramped as I was for money, you know why some poor people are fat. You cannot afford nutritional food. Fresh fruit is a frivolity that is out of the question. Four dollars in Manhattan for a half-pint of berries? No way.

Did you know that Kraft macaroni and cheese is often on sale for a dollar a box? That if you don't mind feeling a bit hungry in the evening and drink lots of water with it, you can make it last for three meals?

Of course, my once-routine hair cut and color every five or six weeks was out of the question. I learned to touch up roots myself and style it as well as I could. (You have no idea how fast hair grows until you can't afford to have it cut.)

The only “excess” expenses I kept were a landline telephone and an internet account because even in 1999, there really was no other way to look for work.

Instead of dropping off my laundry once a week to be washed and folded as I had done for decades, I did it myself and stretched it to once every two weeks. Gossiping with neighbors for two hours at the laundromat became pretty much the extent of social life.

In the first month, I had stopped going to restaurants and soon I stopped meeting friends for even drinks or coffee. I made what excuses I could think up and after I had declined a few times, they stopped calling.

Except for the few job interviews I got, I never went anywhere that I couldn't walk. No subways, buses or taxis.

After several months, when I finally got my first, in-person interview, my hair was looking so awful that I went to a low-end salon for a cut and color (I couldn't spend the $250 charged by the woman who had taken such good care of me for years before my layoff).

As it turned out, the stylist did not know how to color gray hair so my roots – roots only - came out bright orange while the rest of my hair was almost-but-not-quite the light reddish color I wanted.

She wasn't inclined to fix it and since it was already evident that she couldn't color hair, I went back to the drugstore and was able to achieve an almost adequate color on my own before the interview.

A huge chunk of money each month went to paying my health care premium. Often, I thought of dropping it but was terrified of what could happen if I got really sick or if I got hit by a truck. It cost more than my monthly mortgage payment.

A few months before I'd lost that job, I had begun the process of dental implants. I have had rotten teeth since childhood and as I got old there was no more fixing them. But when the time came for the teeth to be attached to the metal posts, the cost was impossible. I was forced to continue to rely on the temporary “appliance.”

The worst emotional moment of these 14 months was when one of my oldest friends was hospitalized for serious cancer treatments several miles uptown from my apartment and I could not afford the $2.50 round-trip subway ride to visit her.

When, two weeks after the 9/11 attacks, I got a phone call out of the blue from a former boss who wanted me to start a job the next day, I was at the point of disaster. I had calculated that I could pay all my bills for just one month more.

The Emotional Toll
Anyone reading this who has been through a prolonged period of joblessness knows there is much more I could add to the list. And I should not omit the emotional toll.

I cried a lot during those 14 months. I slept little and was rarely rested. I longed to hang out with friends but after a few months it was not even a matter of money; I could sense that I was so deer-in-the-headlights frightened about what my future would be if I didn't find a job that I wouldn't be able to function normally.

Maybe you don't understand that last point. I reached a place sometimes where coherent thought hardly existed. Just worry – actually, paralysis - about losing my home, my life and overall, how alone I felt with nowhere to turn.

At that time, unemployment benefits in New York City – had I been eligible - would have given me about $375 or $400 a week. It would not have covered all my expenses even with the severe cutbacks I made, but it would have slowed the outgo of borrowed money dramatically.

That would have reduced the fear of the unknown that took such a terrible emotional toll and perhaps allowed me just enough more calmness to figure out a better approach to my dilemma.

But without that bit of help unemployment benefits would have given me, I was paralyzed most of the time.

Today's Unemployed
Everything I have described is happening right now to millions of people because Congress refuses, in the worst economic situation since the Great Depression, to help.

Some have already lost their homes. Many have no health coverage. Others can't pay heating bills this winter. And they are also going hungry.

What the monsters – yes, that is what they are, the ones who voted against extending unemployment benefits – is that a little bit of money keeps people from being emotionally devastated and gives them some space to work on figuring out a future.

How Old Unemployed in Particular are Screwed
After I finally got that new job (entirely serendipity), it took several years to pay off those credit cards, years when I was therefore not saving for retirement. In fact, by the time I was laid off again, three years later, I still was paying off those cards.

Our fifties and sixties, after the kids are mostly done with schooling, are prime years to sock away money for old age, pay off the mortgage. They are also – well, used to be – prime earning years.

But as I have tried to show, a long bout of unemployment not only prevents saving, it eats up past savings, new debt accumulates and if you do find work again, there are years of paying off that debt so you still can't save.

In addition, the formula for the amount of one's Social Security benefit is based, in part, on highest earning years. This is the period during which so many older workers have been laid off and in this particular recession, hardly anyone – if rehired – is paid anything near what they earned before the layoff.

Younger workers are no less squeezed. It is well known that many have been forced to move in with parents. They are postponing marriage and families. But they have one thing older workers do not have and that cannot be bought at any price: time.

Most older workers will never recoup the money they have lost by using up savings, by not earning during their prime years, plus they will get another kick in the butt when their Social Security benefit turns out to be less than what it would be if they had been allowed to continue working.

That's how it is for them now. It will not get better. It is a permanent change until they die.

And those monsters in Congress won't give the unemployed even one little break those few dollars could make in their lives. Keep that in mind when you next wield the single power we have – the vote.

ANOTHER EDITORIAL NOTE: Following my mention last week of having lost more than 30 pounds, one comment and four – FOUR – emails arrived asking me for my weight loss secrets.

I've discussed my personal diet plan a bit in the past and it's not like I have a secret potion to sell. It's all sane, standard stuff. But it has worked and if enough of you are interested in knowing, I'll write a detailed report for you. Let me know.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: Amazing I Say


When one considers the highly qualified older worker who can't find work - any kind - one wonders how those who have worked a low wage all their lives are able to manage at all. They're already living on Kraft macaroni, don't ever go out to eat, and only buy whatever store brand is on sale. Many don't have a car, and end up reliant on friends and relatives for help. It appears many Republicans think that's just how it ought to be.

And yes Ronni, we would love to know just how you managed to trim 30 lbs.

What a heart rending post and one that I can sympathize with. I have been unemployed for long periods in my life but the worst was when I was laid off on my 50th birthday; my employer had decided that an older woman with tendinitis was completely expendable. The huge medical/university complex that I worked for was in the process of trying to privatize. That fell through after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars plus the devastation of many, many lives.

I was lucky. I wanted to give the finger to the university but knew that I could not afford to. Because I already had 20 years seniority - and because so many were sympathetic to what was happening, I was able to get another job within the university, keep my benefits and even have a computer that supported voice recognition programs so I didn't have to stress my hands further.

I thank the former head of the AIDS Program and his humanistic, ethical approach almost every month when I get my pension.

I realize that I was lucky and that I had very specific skills that were useful in a medical/university setting. I have been retired since 2005 and watch today's debacle with horror and disgust.

They indeed are monsters who have never gone hungry, never been terrified about paying the rent.. the list is endless. I wonder how many of the unemployed without benefits will freeze to death in the awful weather in the Midwest. If they do, I hope that their ghosts come back to haunt the members of Congress who refused to extend benefits.

They tell people to get jobs? What jobs? There are few to be had and those often don't pay a living wage.

Ronnie, your story is breathtaking. Too many elected officials are not only ignorant but bereft of empathy and basic compassion.

BTW, I did not receive an email update today so I checked TGB website and saw that you had in fact posted.

I also did not get an email update today...so checked one from a few days ago and I was happy to see that everything was okay with you, Ronni.
I was severanced out of my job last March for "centralization" to a bigger city. My office mate was also out and she had been there for 25 years and was an excellent worker. They are so cold about it and have a whole script that they go by similar to the movie with George Clooney - "Up in the Air" As if losing my job weren't enough, my husband had just gone into a health care facility two months previously due to Parkinsonism...The cost of this facility is prohibitive......and is a monthly struggle...Finally, in July I got another job working at home doing transcription which I really enjoy - The thing that really scares me, in retrospect, is that there is no one out there to tell you what to do...the network is just not there...Senior Linkage contacted me and lined me up with a woman who suggested that we have my husband put on hospice......I have not seen her since...I did, however, fill out their survey form that they sent me...I look back and am amazed that I have survived the past year - so far, financially (barely) and emotionally - It was a lot of change not to mention the accompanying anxiety.. Oh yes, I did get unemployment...and it was a lifesaver....After living with my husband's gradual decline, I am now just grateful when I can get out of bed in the morning, drive, shovel snow and mow my lawn. Hmmm...Enough! That felt good...Thank you for your wonderful posts, Ronni!!

Ronnie, been there and done that. Your story and the one by Diane (above) parallels much of what happened to me. Good job, nice 401K, good health insurance, that is until one day I was told that my job was heading out of state for "consolidation" reasons and they no longer required my services. There I was, 62 years old with no job,and most importantly no health insurance. I was offered a "COBRA" plan that would have cost me over $600 dollars per month for what I paid $50 for when I was working. I had to switch to a cheaper plan and hope I did not get seriously ill, wrong. Unfortunately, I did get sick, very sick and needless to say the part of my medical care that was not covered wiped me out. That $400 I would have received from extended unemployment benefits when I was out of work would have helped to pay for better health insurance until I became eligible for Medicare.BTW, I never was able to find a job and when I reached 65, I was forced to retire. Old age is great except when you're knee deep in it.

"Monsters" is a good description for our sorry Congress.

Here's another vote for the weight loss story.

Not too long at all!

I am in that boat now, and in spite of having heard your story and others, am still just shocked at the process of looking for work, the interviews and then being "shuffled off," all on top of having so little money you do learn about making mac and cheese last for three meals. Thank goodness I love pinto beans.

I am fortunate in having a relative letting me stay with her but it was intended to be for a couple of months. It has been 18. Unfortunately, I resigned my position and moved (for very good reasons), but I am not eligible for unemployment.

It is not a singular story - as you say, thousands are living like this. Congress is indeed filled with monsters.

And me too - though I have read of your weight loss plan, I would love to see the whole story.

I second that--far from too long, Ronni, this post is exactly right!

These stories *never* get told, yet millions of people--law-abiding citizens who did everything right--are now in this exact predicament.

How I wish a few of these Congressional types had to spend a few weeks, months, or years cutting their own hair, eating "out" at the food bank, and explaining to their kids why there will be no new sneakers, movies, or school supplies other than those from the dollar store EVER again.

It's clear the economy has changed in a basic structural way, and these idiots seem to be the only Americans who don't know it.

Ronni, about that boss who never paid you for all your hard work?

Snake in a suit. Hope her bad deeds keep her awake at night.

Sleep tight, loser.

I'm all for extending unemployment benefits. I understand their role and why they are dearly needed. I think my rich Republican friends and legislators think that if one really wants to work, they can find a job, any job, McDonalds, Wendy's or any minimum wage job, better put. They think the long-term unemployed are not trying hard enough to find a job and are being too picky, preferring not to work versus a lower-rung (in many people's mind) job. I don't agree with them, of course.

After months of looking for some meaningful* employment I began to practice such phrases as "Welcome to Walmart" and "Would you like to supersize that sir".

*I don't mean to demean anybody who works for these places, but well, you know what I mean.

Bruce, your blog rocks. Keep it up.

I found myself thinking about your post all night, until I realized the word I was looking for to describe the consequences of the attitudes of some of society's winners was simply "cruelty." Some of us think being cruel to others is acceptable, even praiseworthy behavior. I *think* that most people acting cruelly used to feel they should hide their choices for self and greed, but no longer.

Though sad, the posts on others' experiences help me, as I've had the same jobless experiences at different times in my life.

I am hoping my prior poverty experience will help me stretch what I have to the end of my natural life, but right now it doesn't seem possible. Still, right now, in this moment, all is well. I will sell my small condo in the spring and move into an even smaller apartment to save on housing costs. Making that decision wasn't at all hard and brought a huge sense of relief; I no longer need to build equity nor do any estate planning. I calculate I will avoid spending $72,000 on housing over the next 10 years. I will still spend it, but won't have to gouge my savings so much.

Ronni, your story of losing touch with friends is particularly awful. I went through something similar last winter when I so isolated myself my brain changed, probably permanently. Isolation can be a killer. Lesson learned.

My husband called to my attention this morning a question running on a streamer below the main story about record cold weather back East: "Does the GOP have an empathy gap?" In my mind that's not even a question--it's a FACT. The conservative Republican members of Congress have no empathy and no sense of shame for abandoning their fellow human beings.

Ronni, I knew from previous posts that you had been laid off 2X, but I had no idea that you had been living so close to the line--as so many others are doing now. I realize over and over again how lucky I've been to have had a steady job for the past 38 years. My husband and I both worked for nonprofits. He worked until age 76 and I'm now 77 and still working part time. We're far from wealthy, but we'll probably be O.K. as long as we don't need a nursing home.

A pox on Congress! This well-educated, well-off (largely) white male bunch of jerks has no idea how the rest of America lives--or doesn't. I'm with Paula, who wrote that they should all have to experience for themselves AND their families what it means to have no job and no money in today's heartless America. GREED rules!

Honestly, I can barely imagine the daily struggles you describe with severe loss of income. Perhaps someday I will know. It hurts to think of so many suffering (needlessly!). It enrages to think of the ignorance being strutted and preened in Congress these days. But the problem lies in the overall citizen acceptance of and drive for power/money. Until we empower ourselves, organize, and mobilize, not much will change. Meanwhile those who are above it all can know they are living descriptions of Dante's Inferno, tho not necessarily physically recognizable.
Thank you for your description of those tough times you endured, and the choice to thus revisit them and the attendant painful feelings.

The tentative results of resent studies are scary! Genetics may have strong influence in political leanings.

All excellent advice and very much like the diet I follow. I eat what I refer to on my blog as a nutrient-rich, mostly plant-based, mostly whole foods diet. And I too have lost 35 pounds since starting it. My morning breakfast is 1/2 grapefruit and a bowl of oat bran with blueberries, walnuts and almond milk. I try to get beans in at lunch time --- usually I make a big pot of bean and vegetable soup for the week. And dinners are lots of vegetables, fruit and some starch. Intermixed with all of that, I also will eat cold-water fish (salmon, sardines, etc.), fish eggs (roe), oysters, clams and sushi. I stay away from all muscle meats -- that is beef, chicken, pork and other fish. I don't count calories.

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