My uncle Russ, or “Cool Uncle Russ” as I called him when I was a youngster, has always been a favorite of mine. In the ‘80s, he wore cool sunglasses, leather jackets and listened to top 40 hits. And even though he and my aunt Donna do not have kids, he’s a professional at dad jokes, ones like “Why do melons have weddings? Because they cantaloupe!”. Younger people seem to enjoy the puns the most, though it can be a painful laugh at any age.
Uncle Russ called a few years ago as he and my aunt were considering relocating to Pennsylvania to move into a retirement community. They were seeking advice. They wanted a living situation that could be flexible as their health needs changed while also ensuring that they live within their means. They moved into a Life Plan community outside of Pittsburgh.
It has worked well. They have a house within the community and friends, and they are involved in activities. They have peace of mind financially and also from a health care perspective.
However, something was missing for Russ. Where were all the younger people?
He decided to go back into the workforce and get a job. He was in his mid-70s at the time. The only problem was that, despite his experience with engineering firms and doing project management, no company would return his emails or phone calls. Firms were hiring but he couldn’t even get an interview. It was nearly a year of fruitless searching. It was his most direct encounter with ageism in the workplace.
He was seeking a job more as an opportunity for greater purpose and to socialize with people of different ages than for a paycheck. What if he dialed back on the pay?
He took a different tact. He saw an ad and sought to return to one of his first jobs: working at the deli counter. He applied, was accepted and started the next day.
Russ has been working at the local deli shop within Bi-Lo Foods of Harmony, Pennsylvania for several years now. He works the early shift from 6:30am to 1:30pm – 7 hours – and is on his feet the entire time. He turns 80 next year.
One of his greatest enjoyments is interacting with his clients and co-workers. He knows many customers by name and remembers their meat and cheese preferences. He also knows their hot buttons – he’s always looking for playful ways to make fun or to trigger a laugh. In the words of his manager, Russ has a “joke for everything.”
He’s befriended his younger co-workers. Some of them are over 60 years younger. He understands the challenges facing younger people, including struggles with social media and loneliness. He’s been able to share his sense of humor and he’s played a number of practical jokes on his colleagues. One time, in order to fit in with the ladies on the team, he wore a hat with a built-in pony tail…
He also brings a strong work ethic. He wakes up before 5am, makes the 5 minute drive and is at the store at 5:40 – nearly an hour before his shift starts – to check the inventory and make sure that everything is set up properly for the day. He’s never called in sick or missed a day. This is how he was taught to work. It’s a different approach as compared to some of his millennial colleagues. He serves as a role model to his younger co-workers.
Understandably, his boss appreciates Russ’ contributions, thoughtfulness and the joy he brings to the team. She is open to Russ working as long as he would like. There’s no end in sight so long as his health cooperates.
Initially, Russ was reticent to share about his job at the deli. It took a year or so before the broader family learned about it. He eventually told his friends at his retirement community, too. Maybe it was not perceived as “cool”. We all admire Russ’ courage to put himself out there and persevere to find something that he values and that values him. Some of his fellow residents at the retirement community are curious if there are job openings.
As a society, we’re struggling with having enough social interactions; those that are deep and those that are superficial. They both offer benefits. Russ and his colleagues have become closer friends over time and their joyful interaction with customers provide a well-being boost for all involved. Moreover, for Russ, it’s been an opportunity to tap into an intergenerational environment that would have never been possible within his retirement community.
Next year, there will be a celebration at the Bi-Lo deli counter that will be certain to attract people of all ages. It will be for a certain worker’s 80th birthday. But watch out for the puns. They’ll be coming and, in my experience, it will be hard not to laugh.