10/06/2011 09:02 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2011

Retired Seniors Might Be the Answer to America's Aging Problem

Christine Mitchell has worked since she was 17 years old. Last year, at age 68, she finally retired. But not for long. "I couldn't take being in the house," she says. "I'm always on the go, always working. I had to get out."

She jumped back into the workforce with the help of the Mature Workers Program, an initiative by the New York City Department for the Aging designed to assist people age 55 and older regain employment. A former factory worker, she found no openings in her field but discovered there were immediate opportunities in the home health care field. After successfully completing a 114-hour training course, she became a home health aide.

Over the last 15 years, Partners in Care -- the agency I work for -- has hired some 220 aides through the program (and many more seniors through other channels), a fraction our 9,000 employees but a vital pipeline that begins to address two trends: 1) the growingly urgent need for home health care workers, and 2) the economic crisis that is forcing people out of retirement at the same time the first wave of baby boomers hits age 65.

Underlying both trends is the fact that Americans are living longer. This translates to a ballooning in the number of Americans who need long-term care, according to a recent National Health Statistics Report (NHSR) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The NHSR cites projections that employment of home health aides will rise 50 percent between 2008 and 2018 -- from 921,000 to 1,382,000.

At the same time, the number of seniors in the labor force has increased nearly 60 percent in the last decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and is expected to do so again in the next several years -- from 6.5 million today up to 11 million in 2018. (NOTE: For a vivid -- and personal -- look at the aging workforce, see a wonderful website from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Brave Old World.) With baby boomers healthier, longer-lived and better educated than any previous generation, many people choose to keep working well past the traditional retirement age, notes a recent Washington Post article. At the same time, many seniors, unable to make ends meet on Social Security, feel they have no choice but to remain in or return to the workforce.

For many baby boomers, this means continuing on with their careers. For others -- those who are downsized as they near retirement, for example, or who work in industries that are becoming automated or moving overseas -- new careers are needed at an age that might have meant retirement in the past.

Take Kathleen Smith, who re-entered the workforce at age 62 -- which, as she points out, puts her in pretty good company. "I'm the same age as Hillary Clinton, so don't count me old," says Kathleen, who recently passed her home health aide certification. "We're just baby boomers starting out. She's secretary of state... at age 62. So if she can do that, I can certainly be a home health aide."

Benefits of Experience

Many employers see benefits in their older workers, as the Washington Post reports. Kaiser Permanente finds that the experience of their older workforce translates into better quality and patient satisfaction. We've noted that many older workers stick with the job more reliably. Seniors who come to our organization through the Mature Workers program have an approximate 90 percent retention rate after a year on the job, compared with a 66 percent one-year retention rate for trainees in other programs, as my colleague Jay Conolly told Crain's New York Business.

In addition, he notes, older workers often have a more deeply ingrained work ethic and can serve as mentors to younger trainees. "The training can be quite stressful," he explains. "I've seen younger workers get frustrated, and a mature worker steps in, pulls them into the hallway, tells them to take a deep breath. The mature workers can really use their life experience to get through the training."

"With us being older, we might have a little better communication," says Christine, adding that she is around the same age as many of her clients. "If they suggest something, I might suggest another way to do it -- from my own experience." She notes that she was the oldest one in her training session.

Christine helps clients with household chores and provides companionship. All told, the work is a good fit for her, and she for the work. "I like to keep busy," she says. "I like to help, and I like to be there to listen. It's nice. They can talk about their family, their pets, what goes on in life, what's happening in the news." She pauses for a moment to think about the situation, then adds, "In a way we might be helping each other."