By Brenda Owen

Daily Journal

Looking forward to retirement is a great American pastime, but with escalating living costs and government cutbacks on programs to assist older people, many retirees are finding that their golden years are not so golden.

Facing these financial hardships has meant that many Northeast Mississippians have been forced to return to work part-time to supplement their retirement incomes.

For Dorothy McMillen, life took a harsh turn when her husband died six months ago. Suddenly, she was the head of a household which included herself and her 12-year-old grandson, whom she and her husband adopted.

"It was frightening," said McMillen, a resident of the Dorsey community in Itawamba County. "After being out of the work force for more than 12 years, I suddenly needed a job."

McMillen applied to Green Thumb, Inc., a government employment and training program for seniors which enabled her to attend classes at Itawamba Community College and brush up on fundamental math and English as well as typing and computer skills. Recently, McMillen was hired at an area group home for girls.

"I am continuing the computer classes to keep my skills up," McMillen said. "Who knows what the future holds?"

That McMillen is not alone in her dilemma is documented by data gathered in the 1990 census which shows that about one-third of workers 25 percent of men and 40 percent of women continue to work after official retirement. Some work to contribute to society; some work for the challenge; others just need the money, say area experts working with the senior population.

As people expect to live longer, they are concerned about their retirement assets. They are concerned that their pension plan, savings and Social Security may not be enough.

Former teacher and factor worker Ripple Lesley discovered the gritty realities of living on a fixed income after she retired in 1974 at age 60. For 13 years she struggled to survive on her Social Security checks before taking a job again in her early 70s. For the past nine years, her smiling face has greeted Saturday shoppers at WalMart in Fulton where Lesley works as a "greeter."

"I really enjoy my work here," Lesley said. "I'm able to see people I know and feel good about what I do and the extra income helps me out. God has really blessed me."

Not just older, but better

With mandatory retirement outlawed and Social Security benefit ages creeping upward, more retirees like Lesley are continuing in second careers, self-employment or part-time jobs that allow them to stay involved and continue to earn for several years more than the usual 65 years, experts say.

But that's not always easy, say older adults like Michael Opiala.

Since moving to Tupelo last year, Opiala has been unable to find a position despite his impressive performance portfolio. The 74-year-old with his wife, Betty Opiala, moved from Chicago recently bringing with him more than 40 years experience in administration, management information systems and computer services.

"I feel like I could have a career lasting five or 10 more years," he said, but prospective employers look at him and see health problems and declining ability.

"I have not been sick in 30 years and I feel certain that my background, abilities, skills and experience can contribute to the prestige, success and growth of any company or corporation," he said, adding with a grin, "I'm smarter than I've ever been."

Opiala believes younger personnel managers and executives sometimes feel threatened by the knowledge and experience of older people. Others, he said, simply buy into the false assumption that age automatically adversely affects job performance.

After talking with a potential employer on the phone where he recited his long list of accomplishments and skills, Opiala was told, "You sound like just what we're looking for." When he appeared in person, however, he was swiftly ushered through the interview and out the door. He was never called back.

Before he left Chicago, Opiala who was told by a friend who had been turned down for a job that the prospective employer had dismissed him with, "We don't hire anyone with gray hair."

At the time, Opiala thought his friend was joking. Now, he says, "I know how he felt."

Obstacles and options

In a culture obsessed with youth, some older job seekers are finding that their years of documented reliability and experience often lose out to younger candidates with less experience and unproven ability.

Betty Nash, owner of Betty Nash Employment Agency, said highly skilled and educated senior workers experienced in middle management careers must sometimes seek alternatives to competing in the mainstream corporate world.

Nash, who falls into the 50-plus category herself, said candidly, "If I did not own my own business, I don't think I would be able to find a job out there."

Many retirees, in fact, are opting to go into business for themselves, according to survey reports. Others offer their expertise as consultants or apply for temporary or contingent work through agencies.

Retirees are a mainstay at some temporary agencies and it is here that many retired professionals are finding an outlet for their skills. In fact, some of the larger firms provide training to keep seniors up-to-date. Manpower Temporary Services, Inc., for instance, offers free computer training to all employees, and about one-fourth of the 500,000 workers trained by the agency nationwide have been seniors.

Karla Hardenburg, Manpower's area manager in Northeast Mississippi, said her company has launched a campaign to continue recruiting more senior workers.

"Temporary employment allows senior workers to maintain a flexible work schedule so they also have time to pursue their other activities," she said. "They can also supplement their income with temporary work without losing social security benefits."

By hiring senior workers temporarily, Hardenburg said, companies discover that they are reliable, viable employees.

"They bring a lot of skills and experience with them, but are also receptive to learning new skills necessary for today's work environment," she said.

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