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Investment losses force seniors to put off dreams

Martha Insinga’s part-time job at Home Depot was originally for travel money. “Now it’s giving me eating money,” she says.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

Martha Insinga’s part-time job at Home Depot was originally for travel money. “Now it’s giving me eating money,” she says.

SUN CITY CENTER — At this stage of her life, Martha Insinga thought she'd be taking cruises or traveling to Ireland on tours.

Instead, she dons an orange Home Depot apron three to four days a week and waits in the appliances section for anyone eager to buy a washer or dryer during a recession.

"I'd planned to work a day or two for something to do and that would have given me travel money," said Insinga, 65. "Now it's giving me eating money."

Many Sun City Center residents settle in ready to relax, play golf or join one of dozens of social clubs. But as their nest eggs crumble in the collapse of the stock market, some retirees are making hard decisions to return to work, curtail plans or consider moving in with their adult children.

The crisis for many seniors nationwide, particularly in hard-hit areas like Florida, is compounded by two trends: longer life spans and a retirement system that is more heavily based on the market, Jean Setzfand said.

Setzfand is the director of financial security for the national office of AARP, a nonprofit advocacy group for people ages 50 and older.

Less than 20 percent of workers can count on a pension and Social Security benefits package, she said. The amount is slightly higher for current retirees, but she expects it to drop with a worsening economy.

"As we talk about recession and bankruptcy, we're going to see that number dwindling further," she said.

The movement away from pensions in favor of tying retirement benefits into stock market investments has left older Americans increasingly vulnerable, she said.

Insinga retired from Sears as a saleswoman before moving here. She and her husband lost about $100,000 in retirement investments.

"I don't think, in our lifetimes, we'll ever gain back what we lost," she said.

Then, a few months ago, her husband was laid off from his job as a parts manager for a trucking company, forcing Insinga to pick up more hours at Home Depot, both for the income and the health care benefits to supplement Medicare.

She knows there might be even tougher decisions ahead.

"If things got so bad, we could go up North and live with one of the kids."

After losing $30,000 in the stock market, Carl Hansen is worried his investments won't last as long as he'd hoped. He's braced for returning to the work force.

"If it still keeps getting crazy, I'll go back and work part time," said Hansen, 63, a retired computer scientist.

Retirees who are living longer also are wondering if their money will run out before their health does.

Aileen Chapman will turn 101 next month. She and her late husband, who was a house painter, never had children. But Chapman, a retired music teacher and founder of the Pinellas Youth Symphony, is used to relying on her own pluck. (Until a few years ago, she played saxophone in the Second Time Arounders Marching Band.)

This year, however, as her health worsened, she moved from independent into assisted living at Westminster Shores in St. Petersburg. Her expenses doubled. She pays them from retirement investments, which took a substantial hit in the stock market collapse, though she won't say how much.

Pension and Social Security payments are too small for her to live on — based on the teacher's salary she earned before she retired in 1968. She fears she will soon need to tap into the principal of some charitable and family trusts established with her husband, a legacy she'd hoped to leave for her nieces and nephews.

"Our charitable trusts have practically been eaten up, and benefits for our family will have evaporated," Chapman said.

Some elderly couples worry the burden may eventually fall on their spouses as their carefully laid-out retirement plans for two vanish.

Joe Coleman, 80, lost about $40,000 from his retirement investments. The head of the Sun City Center lawn bowling club and his wife live off the pension he receives from New Jersey after working 31 years as a schoolteacher. But he worries about her should he die first, because then his pension stops.

"We really needed that savings," Coleman said.

Others in the lawn bowling club, like Pete Sears, 78, don't have a pension. That's because he was independently employed as an anesthesiologist before retirement.

"I had it almost entirely in the stock market," he said of his retirement investments, of which he lost more than $100,000. His wife gets a state pension from New York, and the two have some money left in mutual funds. But now they need it to live on, not to travel, as they had planned.

"We're certainly not going to be doing that," Sears said.

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at amrhein@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2441.

by the numbers

69 percent

Workers 45 and older who say they likely will spend less in retirement

65 percent

Workers 45 and older who say they will delay retirement and work longer

37 percent

Workers who say it is likely they will save more for retirement

Source: AARP survey released in October

Investment losses force seniors to put off dreams 12/14/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 16, 2008 2:25pm]

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