At 68, Aurelia Dillon gives no thought to retirement. She needs to work and wants to work, she says, if only she could find a job. Laid off from a Carney flower shop Thanksgiving week, she has been looking for employment ever since.
Dillon, a widow, has pension and other income, lately boosted by unemployment benefits. But she cares for two grown children: a mentally disabled son and a brain-injured daughter. She has hefty food costs, too, and a car payment. Her latest monthly electric bill was a sizzling $394.
"I have bills to pay," she said, explaining why she has applied to no fewer than 16 florists. After attending a mandatory two-day class at a Baltimore County career center, she's willing to learn new skills with the clock ticking on her 46 weeks of jobless benefits.
As the economy has worsened, more and more retirement-age workers have joined Dillon on the unemployment rolls. Last month the national jobless rate for those 65 or older hit 5.7 percent. That's still below the overall U.S. rate but the highest level for that age group since 1977.
"This recession is really hitting older workers hard," said Richard Johnson, a researcher at the Urban Institute in Washington. In past downturns, it was easier for them to retire after losing jobs, he said.
"Today that's no longer the case because retirement accounts are disappearing, housing prices are slumping. And even after they qualify for Social Security, many people have to keep working."
The proposed economic stimulus package includes $120 million for job training programs that are aimed at lower-income seniors and run by the Silver Spring nonprofit group Senior Service America. Johnson says the extra money would help but is a "drop in the bucket" relative to the overall need.
Last month the nation counted 373,000 people 65 or older who were unemployed.
Maryland data are not available for the period after the recession began in late 2007. However, local employment centers report a surge of workers who have reached or are approaching retirement age.
In the second half of 2008, 2,100 people age 55 and up sought help at Baltimore County's two job centers, nearly triple the 800 who did the entire previous year, said Barry Williams, director of the county's Office of Workforce Development.
"What we're finding in general is these are folks who said, 'This is not a choice,' " Williams said. "Their 401(k)s have tanked, and they don't have disposable income they once had."
In the past seven months, Baltimore City's three career centers have seen a somewhat more modest 17 percent rise in the number of 55-plus visitors compared with the same period a year earlier. That includes a bump in the 65-and-over demographic.
Not only can the loss of a job hurt an older person's ability to pay today's bills and plan for tomorrow's retirement, but it can also take away private health insurance. Medicare kicks in at 65, though its coverage can be a step down for some.
"When you see unemployment numbers rise, it's a triple whammy - it's income, it's lifelong financial security and it's health care," said Joseph DeMattos Jr., senior state director in Maryland for AARP, which represents people age 50 and older.
Moreover, rejoining the labor force can be harder for older people, who often encounter subtle age bias.
"It tends to take them longer to find a new job after they're laid off than it does younger workers," Johnson said. "When older workers find a new job, they tend to experience a pretty sharp decline in wages."
The nation's work force has been graying for years. Last year, people 65 or older accounted for 4.1 percent of all workers, many in the hard-hit retail sector, up from 2.8 percent a decade earlier.
The reasons for the shift include longer average life span, changing societal views and a greater appreciation for "mature" workers' loyalty and experience.
The flip side, experts say, is that economic necessity is forcing many to stay on the job well into their 60s and beyond, causing considerable stress when those jobs are eliminated.
Elsie Brown has been desperate to restore her income level since being laid off July 31 by Zurich, an insurance company. With her 64th birthday around the corner and bills piling up, she said, "I don't even know which way to go."
The Northeast Baltimore resident said her household finances have grown increasingly precarious. "Do I pay my utilities, or do I eat? It's a tossup."
Brown spent five years at Zurich, calculating insurance premiums. Her husband gets disability payments, but the couple relied on her income, which enabled her to start digging out of a bankruptcy filing by paying $350 per month.
She has been drawing just $380 a week in benefits while conducting a job search she likens to "running up against a closed door."