Senior workers man the front lines despite coronavirus risk 00:00

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Senior workers man the front lines despite coronavirus risk

For millions of seniors, working during the pandemic is a life-threatening gamble as Covid-19 disproportionately affects the elderly. Debrah Dubay, who works at a hardware store in Taos, N.M., shares why she’s still going.

Editor’s note: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of workers aged 65 or older has grown by 117% over the last 20 years. And that trend is expected to continue; it is projected that by 2024, some 13 million people aged 65 or older will still be working.

Debrah Dubay

It’s important to be part of a community and and working’s something that I think many of us have grown up to do. You know, if you prefer being retired, fine. But working is something that I feel for myself keeps me well tuned. And it keeps me in good shape. It keeps me mentally active. And I think that those are things that are important as you get older, important to be involved. 

I am Debrah Dubay. I am 70 years old. I live here in Taos, New Mexico, I am a wannabe artist, but I work at Ace Rio Grande in the garden center. I’ve been at Ace for three years now. When I first became single, I worked at Ace in Austin, and I was a buyer for them. Now I am older, and I prefer to work at a more casual job. So I work out in the garden area. And I love working kind of in the shadow of the mountain watching the flowers and the little critters. And yeah, it’s a wonderful place. 

I have worked through the pandemic, absolutely, I never stopped, I’ve worked full time. I actually had it in before we even knew that Covid was something we didn’t even know what it was called at the time. And I had all all the symptoms. But afterward I realized, Oh, I had what they’re talking about. So I took probably two weeks off, just to get over what I had. And by the time I was back to work, people began to know what this was all about. 

I can tell you after I had this, it took a long time to get over. You know, like I knew I was over the fever, I knew I was over the essential part of having Covid. But I know that it took me almost a year to get back to the strength that I had. There’s like congestion, it’s hard to breathe, it’s hard to go hiking up to the Williams Lake again, right, you know, the big mountains. And it took a toll. I had to really work hard at getting back to my normal activities. And I just was huffing and puffing and having a hard time. 

I like to hike and photography and being out where you see wildlife and what have you. You know, and I think that as you get older, you know your body is meant to be used. And if you don’t hike, and if you don’t work and you don’t use all your your extremities, you’re going to lose strength in that. So I believe working is a way to rather than just go and exercise and lift weights, walking, and bending and lifting and doing all the things you do at work keeps you flexible, and strong. And I think that’s a really important lifestyle. It makes you keep using your mind, right, your mind is just as strong a muscle as your legs or your arms. It’s important that you keep all of that vital and, and work demands it of you. So therefore, you rise to the occasion. 

Debrah Dubay, 70, lives in Taos, New Mexico, and works in the garden center at Ace Rio Grande. (Photo courtesy of Avery Thompson)

Covid challenged all of those things, right? Your memory, you know, and your strength in your breathing. And all of that was challenged. But I never thought of stopping work. I enjoy work too much. If I didn’t enjoy work, I would stop and I would retire immediately. But I do enjoy it. It’s fun. I get to see people every day. Yeah, and I enjoy the community. It’s like a family. So yeah, we’ve done whatever we can to keep Ace Rio Grande a safe work space, it’s important that the community feels safe. And it’s important for the employees to feel safe. Yeah, I’m, I’m very grateful. And I I feel sometimes people feel like the people you work for only want to make money. But I felt well cared for by the people who run the store. I feel that they were doing their best on our behalf. I mean, they they gave every employee $200 to go and shop just free $200 worth of groceries to be well stocked during the very beginning of Covid.

We were told, you know that if you had to take time off that there was like a fund or you know, you had sick leave and so people were much more precautious. You know, for a long time people kind of forced themselves to go to work even if they didn’t feel well, right? Everybody showed up, you got a cold, you got a cold. That was not the way it was after we realized that there was something really dangerous going on. So you know, people were highly discouraged if you have if you’ve got a cold, if you’re running a fever, stay home, take two weeks off, 

It was management that arranged for us to be able to be part of the vaccination for essential workers. So we had an opportunity, they announced it over our our headphones, if you would like to be vaccinated, today is the day and we will let you all go, you know, one at a time making sure that you we have enough people on the floor to work but at the same time, we want as many people as would like to have the vaccine, go and be vaccinated. And so I’d say the majority of the store was vaccinated that specific day, So pretty much we were all covered. 

Yeah, this is like war, isn’t it? You know, it really is we’re all pulling together. We’re all trying to take care of each other. But I would say that the essential workers are the frontline. So the essential workers, yes, are the frontline of the war, I would say that seniors are more, maybe more threatened by it. So yeah, and I think everybody knows either somebody in their family or friend or community. Everybody has somebody they that they’ve lost. 

Phil had had some physical problems related to diabetes. So he had been hospitalized twice, I think that year, and, and he had not been vaccinated, he had had the day off when we the whole as a store had gone in for vaccines. So he ended up catching it and was hospitalized and then passed. 

He was one of those people who love to work. He knew a lot of people. And we all miss him. So once again, I mentioned that the people that I work with are like family. So I lost a family member. 

It’s always been fun to go to work during the day and go out at night, listen to live music, go to art openings, go to gallery openings, go to poetry reading, you know, going out to eat, happy hour, hello. Those are things that really make a community I would say sing. So work during the day, play at night. And we’ve turned off part of that, it’s become actually almost gray. It’s like there’s a cloud over everything. We need to open up again, and enjoy our art in our community and our friends and gatherings again. I’m just ready for that I’m hungry for that. And once we have the majority of the community vaccinated, then everybody can get out. Play again.

You know, I probably will start working part time in the next maybe four or five years, and eventually I will produce more art. But right now I’m happy doing what I’m doing.

Avery Thompson
For iPondr, I’m Avery Thompson.

Audio story edited by Annie Sinsabaugh

Alex Charner is a Caracas-born, Atlanta-based illustrator and communication trainer. As a student and artist in Dalvero Academy, Alex was part of the team of artists who documented the rebuilding and launch of the Charles W. Morgan wooden whaling ship at Mystic Seaport. Trained as a réportage or on-the-spot illustrator; Alex sees drawing as a powerful language to document events, tell stories and build connections.

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