Larry LaRue

Retirement is no easy cruise for this Midland woman and other “average folks”

One of Candy Johnson’s last jobs was at a child care center, where she bent over one day to pick up a baby and hurt her back so badly she saw stars.

When Johnson retired shortly thereafter, she was 62 years old and filed for disability. She didn’t get it. And soon she found herself in the minefield that the Pierce County Aging and Disability Resource Center calls “retirement for average folks.”

What’s that mean?

Bob Riler, a community outreach and education specialist with the resource center, defines it as someone who has little or no retirement savings, no pension and an average Social Security check of $1,300 or less, which makes up about 90 percent of the person’s retirement income.

“They’re retired, but they’re not going to cruise the Mediterranean on that kind of money,” Riler said.

There’s no cruise in Candy Johnson’s future.

She’s about to turn 68, and her Social Security check is $400. There’s a smaller check for Supplemental Security Income, and she gets about $150 in food stamps each month.

“I live meagerly,” she said.

Johnson rents a Midland mobile home for $400 a month from a friend, lives with a cat named Gracie and drives a 1992 Ford Taurus. Her life changed a few years ago when she visited her doctor’s office and picked up a newspaper.

“I found an ad asking for volunteers for a Senior Companions program,” she said. “I’d been bored and lonely, so I called. I think I probably needed the people more than they needed me …”

Senior Companions is a federal program run in Pierce County by Lutheran Community Services. Last year it served 104 clients; local volunteers donated 29,701 hours.

About 20 of those hours each week were filled by Johnson.

“I’ll drive one woman to her doctor appointment,”she said. “Another woman and I go to the senior center each week for lunch, then to her home where we play Scrabble.

“In good weather, one woman wanted to go to garage sales and look for treasures, but she couldn’t drive. I drove.”

Program director Julie Kerrigan said that’s the program’s goal.

“It’s a buddy system. You’re not cleaning their house; it’s supposed to be fun for both of you,” Kerrigan said. “We tell people, ‘This is not a job. You’re a volunteer with a stipend.’

Working 20 hours a week, 80 hours a month, means Johnson can earn just over $200 a month, not counting her mileage and lunch reimbursements. It isn’t considered income, so it doesn’t count against her government benefits.

“I’ve made friends I’d never have made otherwise,” she said. “It gets me out, it helps get me by.”

But Senior Companions is not for everyone, nor is it the solution for every average-folks retirement problem.

This month and into early February, the Aging and Disability Resource Center is offering workshops on retirement, taught by Riler. Johnson plans to attend a session in Parkland.

“We talk about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid,” Riler said. “And one of the things I do is remind everyone that retirement is about more than money. People need to develop hobbies, remain sociable, maybe do some part-time work if they want.”

He said his agency took 17,000 telephone calls last year from people looking for some kind of help — and many of those people were financially secure.

“No matter what your issue is,” Riler said, “call us and we’ll talk you through it — whether you’ve retired or you’re about to retire.”