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Living with a chronic illness is an experience more and more Americans are facing every day. With, by definition, no permanent cure, chronic illnesses affect every aspect of a person’s life, from relationships to employment options. The latter is even further complicated when someone with a chronic illness is attempting to prepare for late-in-life events, such as retirement.

People who are chronically ill or disabled have to consider many factors outside of payscale and skills when seeking employment. The flexibility of scheduling, physical requirements, and the company’s understanding of working with an individual with special medical or mental health needs all factor into whether these jobs are a good fit. But even with a steady job that pays well, few people are truly prepared for retirement.

Research has shown that a third of Americans have no savings, and almost a quarter has less than $10,000 saved. With retirement being one of the most expensive life changes, this is especially concerning for those with disabilities and chronic illness. This is further complicated by forced early retirements when people who have worked to find and maintain a career can no longer do so due to their illness. 

Forced Early Retirement and Mental Health

For healthy people, retirement is a celebration, an occasion for parties and joyous send-offs. For someone who is forced into early retirement because of chronic illness, it is often very different. Where those who are healthy experience retirement as a culmination of professional and personal success, those who are forced into it because of mental or physical illness may feel that their careers have been cut short, that they have lost a portion of their independence or even their value. This can quickly lead to depression and other mental health concerns.

There is a different perspective we can take on this type of retirement, though. Jeanne Dagna, for example, found that after working for 32 years with multiple chronic illnesses, she could wear her retirement as a badge of honor, one that showcases her tenacity and success in her education, career, and personal life.

It’s about how she frames it. She succeeded despite the odds, receiving education through adversity, and building a successful career. Through this type of lens, those required to take an early retirement can still see it as a celebration of what they have accomplished.

If you’re among those facing early retirement due to chronic illness, one way to shift your mindset is to do what you can to prepare yourself emotionally and mentally for retirement as much as possible. Look into mental health benefits that will let you find counselors, and any other services covered by your insurance to help you handle the transition out of employment.

If you work in an industry that uses unions, make sure that you talk with your union representative. Work with them to ensure that you are receiving the benefits and treatment that you are entitled to, making your transition into retirement as smooth as possible.

Employment, Benefits, and Marginalized Groups

Being gainfully employed as a person with a chronic illness is a challenge on its own. For those with disabilities, it’s a major step to find a company that actively supports the mental and physical health of its employees. This support (or lack thereof) is evident through a company’s approach to taking breaks and sick days, as well as the quality of the insurance it provides.

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With support systems variable depending on the current political climate, it can be difficult to prepare for retirement.

Even when supportive employment with comprehensive healthcare is obtained, the prevalence of chronic conditions in immigrant populations, and the bias experienced by women and minority groups in the healthcare system results in women and marginalized groups being disproportionately affected by chronic illness.

Many people with chronic illnesses such as Diabetes or Chron's disease will have issues in obtaining health or life insurance. Says Melissa Thompson of Diabetes Life Solutions " people with any type of chronic illness will have a challenging time securing various insurance products. Insurance providers simply view those with health issues as a higher risk, so they will be selective in choosing who they approve, and at what rates. As an example, life insurance with type 1 diabetes will always be more expensive compared to a person without diabetes. And in some situations, insurance companies will NOT even offer any coverage.” 

Lack of education for both women and immigrants can hinder these groups from understanding their physical health. Social influences push women in the professional world to not take days off to manage stress or doctor appointments for fear of being seen as weak leaders or unfaithful employees. This can result in women not acknowledging their illnesses or seeking treatment, even if they find a company that supports their needs.

Similar issues are faced by immigrant populations, who experience many barriers to proper healthcare and human services supports that are supposed to aid them. Additionally, they may experience language and financial barriers, in addition to racial bias when seeking treatment.

Depending on the current political climate, Social Security benefits, and support for those with long-lasting health disorders are not always reliable. For younger people with chronic illness, difficulties in proper diagnosis, treatments, and medical negligence become an even greater concern and a barrier to procuring gainful employment with benefits to support them.

Misrepresentation and Chronic Illness

The unfortunate reality is that many business practices that appear to want to protect workers are not truly rooted in those ideals. The right-to-work laws, for example, were developed during the Jim Crow era and are steeped in racism and division. Though they proclaim to be supportive of workers, their implementation works to destabilize otherwise stable unions. It’s these types of laws that hurt disabled and chronically ill workers by disrupting centralized sources of support.

This can be especially important for those who are addressing medical negligence or even malpractice. While these are two distinctly different situations, both can result in an improper diagnosis, unnecessary procedures, and incorrect medications, raising the already high price of a chronic illness. Having a support system through these situations is vitally important for planning thoroughly for your retirement and many people simply don’t have enough support.

Chronic illness accounts for 70% of all deaths in the United States. With almost 48 million people reporting a chronic illness-related disability, early retirement, employment challenges, and the overall lack of savings that most Americans currently have, make the process of retirement even more complicated.

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The challenges that chronically ill and disabled people face within the US economy are massive, and with support systems variable depending on the current political climate, it can be difficult to prepare for retirement. Finding new ways to frame your retirement, preparing for it with the use of mental health professionals, and planning for the financial changes that will be coming are just a few ways that those approaching forced retirement can prepare.

Jori Hamilton