My Parents Can’t Afford to Retire Early, and I’m Terrified They’ll Have to Start Working Again

Not everyone can, or should, go back to work

A resident of a senior living community in Arlington, Virginia listens to a band play a socially-distanced concert. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Renolds/Getty Images

The line at Trader Joe’s wrapped around the store that morning. I sized up the queue from inside my mom’s car, bug-eyed, sweating, contemplating whether joining the throng was worth the risk. It wasn’t the rain that thwarted me. It was the lack of distance between many of the shoppers who were waiting to step into the store. Some of them couldn’t have been standing more than three or four feet apart from one another. Too dangerous, I decided. I can’t take that chance.

So I drove home, empty-handed and sad. My folks would understand. Maybe we could cook some sort of pasta dish with herbs and frozen veggies for dinner, and I’d try Trader Joe’s again the next day, going early and staking out, as if I were waiting in line for Nine Inch Nails tickets. Maybe that would work.

It was not always going to be like this. Back in early March, my pandemic plan was to self-isolate at my apartment in Boston until the crisis was over. I hadn’t really considered going home. Like many people in their twenties and thirties, I didn’t want to risk getting my folks sick. My dad is 72; my mom is 65 — as senior citizens, they are both in one of the most vulnerable demographics.

I cannot save our parents’ nest egg alone. And they wouldn’t want my money anyway.

What convinced both me and my sister to take the gamble and move back to the old suburban homestead wasn’t the persuasive phone calls from my parents (they worried about our safety) or the white-hot panic spreading through Boston as case numbers flared up. It was the realization that by moving back in with our parents, my sister and I could do all the grocery shopping and gas station fill-ups. We could, in essence, ensure our parents were properly social distancing. This seemed the slightest bit safer than leaving our parents to go it alone during a viral surge. Now here we are, a month later, still converged under one roof, with nobody but each other for company.

So far, things have been good. My sister and I can still work remotely. Our parents can’t, but they’ve found plenty of household projects to keep themselves entertained. That’s not to say the anxiety of what’s happening doesn’t seep through our walls. I always get nervous before heading out the door for weekly errands. But it feels like we could keep doing this for months if need be.

There’s just one problem. My parents can’t afford to keep doing this for months. They’re among the tens of millions of American senior citizens who haven’t retired yet. My parents had always lived within their means and they were pretty close to retirement. (They might have been able to retire already had it not been for the money they lost in the 2008 recession.) But today, my parents’ photography and copywriting income streams have effectively vanished, and it’s not like they can go out and apply for new jobs right now. Meanwhile the CARES Act benefits haven’t been enough to patch things up. Several weeks ago, I helped my dad apply for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan he still hasn’t been approved for. Expanded unemployment benefits, while helpful, are just a fraction of what my folks need to avoid breaking into their retirement savings prematurely. They were planning to sell their house this year and move to a smaller and more affordable place. Now, that’s up in the air, too. But their property taxes are still stacking up.

What terrifies me is what happens when states decide to reopen their economies, and pandemic aid benefits are shut off to force people back to work. My parents are healthy for their ages, but they are vulnerable to this disease in ways my sister and I are not. And what fills me with pain and anger is the likelihood they will have to make a brutal choice in mid-May, if Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker sticks to his current plan and allows our state’s stay-at-home advisory to expire then: return to work and risk being exposed to Covid-19, or keep up their social distancing and burn more money they had squirreled away for retirement.

Yet my parents are, in some ways, among the lucky ones. They’re better off than millions of seniors who were nowhere close to being able to retire when the pandemic began. Last October, a CNBC survey of Americans ages 65 to 85 found that six out of 10 participants were still working, out of economic necessity. These seniors will face an even more dire dilemma than the one my parents could soon be looking at. At least my folks have some savings to burn through. But those savings were supposed to spare them from having to work until they each keel over.

America is putting people like my parents in a terrible position. They’ll have to pick their poison and decide which is the greater danger: viral exposure or late-stage insolvency.

The reactive question some might be asking here is, “Why don’t you start picking up some of your parents’ most significant expenses?” The simple answer is, I can’t afford to, and neither can millions of my fellow millennials and Gen Xers. We were already struggling to keep our own heads above water, long before the pandemic broke. I’m still paying rent on a lease in Boston and chipping away at debts. My sister and I can help with shared expenses like groceries and gas. But we haven’t had the “how much could we each pay to help keep our parents alive” conversation yet. I cannot save our parents’ nest egg alone. And they wouldn’t want my money anyway.

In an ideal America, those who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus—due to age or preexisting health conditions — would not be forced back to work before there’s a viable vaccine or treatment. They would be given the option, and the resources, to continue their social distancing practice. But rather than look out for the health of our most imperiled citizens, America is putting people like my parents in a terrible position, They’ll have to pick their poison and decide which is the greater danger: viral exposure or late-stage insolvency.

I refuse to accept this is the best America can do for people who are most likely to contract the coronavirus and suffer complications. If we can gift President Trump a $500 billion slush fund to distribute to whomever he wants, we can give people the $2,000 a month that Reps. Ro Khanna and Tim Ryan have proposed. If the Trump Organization can ask the federal government for hotel rent relief, the rest of us can demand a full suspension of rent and mortgage payments for the duration of this crisis, as Rep. Ilhan Omar is calling for. Mortgage relief alone would make a big difference for people like my folks. It would allow them to make the best choice for their health. Offering extended lifelines to everyone, or even the most vulnerable among us, would be a departure from the America we’ve known. But we’re in a new world now. The economic rules that people like my parents played by — work hard, save consistently, and retire happily — no longer apply. They should not be left to drown. Congress needs to bail them out.

But for now, all we can do is try to bail out each other. When I take another crack at Trader Joe’s, I’ll mask up, buy a heaping cartful of food, and put everything through an itemized decontamination process upon returning home. (We put the mail through a similar process, allowing it to sit on the porch for at least 24 hours before we bring it inside.) My mom is downstairs making some beautiful face masks out of cloth. My dad is finally getting the hang of wearing his mask without fogging up his glasses—something I’ve helped him learn how to do. If the grocery store is still inaccessible when I go, I’ll pick up a pizza and we’ll shop somewhere else. And I’ll try to remind myself the pandemic will pass.

Can we keep this up? Is this way of living sustainable? For now, yes. But this too shall pass.

Writer covering life-work balance, recreation, and how politics shape both. Bylines at VICE, NBC News, WBUR, Southwest Airlines, Boston Magazine, and The Nation

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