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What does thriving look like for older, white working adults in Philly? Security and feeling ‘a part of something’

Though the job market can be tougher for adults 65 and up, earning extra money, staying involved and feeling productive are paramount for many who do work: "We have bigger ideas for how we want to go through our 'last chapter' of our life."

For some, "thriving" means staying in the workforce. (Technical.ly image via Penji)

This report is part of Thriving, a yearlong storytelling initiative from Technical.ly focused on the lived experiences of Philadelphia and comparative city residents. The goal is to generate insights about the economic opportunities and obstacles along their journeys to financial security. Here's who we're focusing on and why.

For Society Hill resident Christine Leszuk, her job with Philly Counts is her “arm in the world.”

Though she works remotely for the org’s outreach program, Leszuk spends her days chatting with Philadelphia residents about all kinds of civic-related things, like where to vote, where you can get vaccinated or if they know about the child tax credit. The organization is currently focused on community health engagement, so Leszuk has been checking with residents who might need help finding care.

“What we’re looking for is those people we could help in a deeper way,” she said. “And it’s working out pretty well. I like the job and I really ended up liking remote working.”

The 75-year-old has had many different jobs in her life, both inside the home and in professional settings. But each role, she said, helped her stay connected to the world. Leszuk is one of about 60,000 white, working adults over the age of 65 in Philadelphia. The group shrinks to about 16,000 when looking at those making under $35,000, a working class wage somewhere between poverty and median income in Philadelphia, a Technical.ly analysis of five-year IPUMS census data shows.

Though 65 is thought to be the standard age of retirement, many people continue working long past that age. They do so for a myriad of reasons, we learned through reporting this feature, though that connection to the world that Leszuk describes was noted as a key motive for the people we talked to for this story. Our reporting also reflects a stark dynamic in the aging workforce: Most seniors in Philadelphia are women.

A 2016 report from the Mayor’s Commission on Aging showed that of the thousands of senior adults in the city’s community, men make up a far smaller portion. Of the approximately 380,000 residents older than 55 in 2016, only 43% were men, and 57% were women.

Christine Leszuk: ‘I believe in never-ending education’

Womanhood and work intersected for those we talked to for this story, especially those who started their professional careers in the 1960s and 1970s. It was true for Leszuk, who worked in advertising in the years after graduating college. She was often the only woman in the room, though she grew to love her job writing creative copy.

It's also the involvement that makes me feel a part of something.

She eventually took a job writing grant proposals for the government, and said that her professional career was a much bigger part of her life before starting a family. But time as a homemaker taught her that she wanted work outside the house, too.

“After a while at home, you’re talking to the wall, you’re talking to the baby,” she said. “But you really want something more happening.”

She eventually went back to the workforce as a substitute teacher. Leszuk has a financial need to work now, as her husband died about 20 years ago — though if she didn’t, she’d probably find something else, some other organization or nonprofit, to keep her busy and stimulated. She has a daughter, but doesn’t want to be “hanging on” to her. She’d prefer to keep her life busy, her mind and her skills growing.

“I believe in never-ending education,” Leszuk said. “I think it’s true of any area you become involved in, and I think women, by and large, don’t look at it the way men do. Women need to go that route, too, to take care of themselves. The money is important — really important. I’m not saying it isn’t. But it’s also the involvement that makes me feel a part of something.”

Sally Guariglia: ‘For a South Philly girl, I really did excellent’

Education was also the piece Sally Guariglia credits to the upward trajectory of her life and career. The 82-year-old South Philadelphian grew up in an “old-fashioned” Italian family where she was considered somewhat of a “dumb broad,” she said. She worked as a waitress for many years and had a store, but she had a “burning desire” to learn.

She struggled with school for a long time before discovering she actually had dyslexia.

“I could learn,” she said. “But I just had to do it a different way.”

Don’t give up the old. But step outside the box and look at the new.

She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, and become a mental health therapist later in life. She worked in Florida where she climbed the ladder at her practice and established programs with inmates at local jails.

“For a South Philly girl, I really did excellent,” she said. “But I started to get lonely.”

She returned to Philadelphia, and worked in the mental health field for about 30 years. Eventually, she transitioned out for some health reasons, but began working in art therapy. When COVID hit, finances became tight. She’s since taken on a part-time role at the South Philadelphia Older Adult Center as an art teacher, contributing to its website, newsletter and parties.

Guariglia follows the motto that every day is a new day. She thrives on learning, and said she’s grateful to have a roof over her head, to have food stamps and to have “this little job.” At the Center, Guariglia feels productive, useful and active, she said, and she’s discovered she loves teaching.

The world has changed for seniors, she said. She considers herself lucky to be up to date on technology, because seniors can often get left behind if they don’t adapt. Many seniors are hesitant to give up their old ways because they worked for them at some point in life. It’s something she talks about with the seniors in her attitude presentation groups at the Center.

“Don’t give up the old,” Guariglia tells them. “But step outside the box and look at the new.”

Janine Vinci: ‘It’s hard finding jobs as a senior’

Janine Vinci, 71, of South Philadelphia, has also begun work in the community in recent years. She spent her professional career first as a social worker and then as a lawyer, in roles that she called “gratifying and personal.” In those careers — especially social work — she was often surrounded by other women. She watched her mother work as she grew up, and it instilled in her the value to work.

When the pandemic hit, Vinci’s criminal trial court cases dried up. She went looking for work in and around her field but struggled.

I have the experience, and experience is everything.

“It’s hard finding jobs as a senior. I couldn’t find a law job,” she said. “I don’t think they liked my age.”

After some time, Vinci defaulted on her mortgage, she said. She found the Senior Community Service Employment Program through the Mayor’s Commission on Aging, which promotes part time work experience and job training for those 55 and up. Now, she works at the Philadelphia Senior Center at Broad and Lombard streets doing risk assessments for seniors, asking about their food access and eating habits, and if they look like they could use some help, she gets them food supplements.

She likes the work and the people, but Vinci said she’d rather be working in law.

“But I’m thriving, I’m fine. As long as I can pay my bills, I’m good,” she said.

If she didn’t have the financial need to work, Vinci said she probably still would — “it keeps your head busy.” She has the aim to return to law, though she gets the impression law firms don’t think she could handle the hours. If anything, she said, she’s a better lawyer now than early in her career.

“I have the experience, and experience is everything,” she said.

Mike Messina: ‘I don’t want for much’

Mike Messina, 76, at the Kimmel Center. (Courtesy photo)

Mike Messina’s been in his part-time job as an usher at the Kimmel Center on South Broad Street since 1971. It’s the same year he got his day job, as an office manager of a funeral home in South Philadelphia, where he’s lived all but a few years of his life.

“I started at the Academy of Music, but when the orchestra left to go to the Kimmel, I went with it,” the 76-year-old said.

Messina spent two years in the Army and three at General Electric, but his longest tenure is in the role he holds now. He’s spent years getting to know Philadelphia theatergoers, especially those in the Family Circle section, where he spent most of his 51 years on the job.

Messina spent his younger years married and raising a few kids, but he was always working, he said. He initially took the second job, working mostly at night, for the “extras” the family wanted, like a new stereo. He’d come home from work at the funeral home, grab a quick bite, and most nights of the week he was off to help the theater’s latest show go off without a hitch.

If you like a job, you hate to quit it. And I hate to quit it.

Messina joked the time apart is why his marriage lasted the strong 46 years it did — his wife was a homebody, and he was “a workaholic.” When she passed in 2012, Messina continued working and staying busy. He’s seen everyone from Jerry Seinfeld to Bette Midler perform, and countless performances of “The Nutcracker.”

“I like the music, I like the people, I’ve seen people grow old, pass away and new people come and get old with me,” he said. “And I like the music, I like doing it.”

Messina retired after 51 years from the funeral home recently, but he kept his job at the Kimmel Center.

“If you like a job, you hate to quit it,” Messina said. “And I hate to quit it.”

Like many of the other people we talked to for this story, Messina likes feeling connected to society and feeling important through work. To him, that was one of the greatest attributes about managing the funeral home — the “prestige,” meeting people and touching peoples’ lives at a hard moment.

And while he might technically be able to make it by on the social security payments he receives, the money he makes as an usher helps him with the things he wants to do. He likes to visit a casino every so often, and in recent years he’s met a “lady friend” that he likes to travel with a few times a year.

“I don’t want for much, and I do as I please,” Messina said. “I feel like I’m thriving. I’d love to thrive a lot better, but I’m thriving nonetheless.”

Linda Orr: ‘We have bigger ideas for how we want to go through our last chapter’

Linda Orr in 2022. (Courtesy photo)

While Linda Orr, 74, of Rittenhouse, currently spends her days working as an intake person at the Rothman Institute, one of her proudest accomplishments was getting her construction business off the ground in the 1990s.

It started with some houses in Camden, then some schools in Atlantic City. Eventually, Orr was working with the Philadelphia Housing Authority, a move to get her foot in the door in Philadelphia. She got financing, and started in commercial work, doing projects in the tri-state area for hospitals, schools and military bases.

Both of her parents, and most of her family members, ran their own businesses.

“It was one of those things where some people espouse to have that risk-taking factor in their DNA,” Orr said. “I had to put up my home for a loan and all my projects were bonded. It’s a huge risk, construction.”

Orr retired in 2017, but it didn’t suit her. She traveled, and was “super Nona” for a while, but got restless.

“How many book clubs can you belong to?” she quipped.

She wanted money for travel, to do the things she wanted to do, and for life expenses and rent, which keeps increasing, she said. The nest egg she thought she would have at this age has somewhat depleted. Orr connected with John Gonzalez, the director of the Senior Community Service Employment Program, and now works at Rothman. Her work ethic rivals the younger folks around her — seniors can assimilate quickly, she said.

“We have bigger ideas for how we want to go through our ‘last chapter’ of our life,” Orr said. “And we want to work.”

Orr likes that she’s contributing to society at this stage of life, and is still appreciated. There’s growth she can have within Rothman, and it gives her the structure she appreciates in life.

There were periods of time when she was thriving more than others, Orr said, like when her business was succeeding. But it’s the personal stuff she considers in the highest regard. Orr raised four children, an “exceptional group of kids.”

“Being a mom is probably what makes me the happiest when it’s all said and done,” she said.

Series: Thriving
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