Dear Savvy Senior,
Can you recommend some good tools and tips for senior gardeners? My 77-year-old mother loves to work in the garden but over the past few years has been plagued by injuries.
Aches, pains and injuries are not uncommon among older gardeners. Because gardening is such a physical activity that often requires a lot of bending and stooping, squatting and kneeling, gripping and lifting, it can be extremely taxing on an aging body.
Back pain and knee injuries are most common among older gardeners, along with carpal tunnel syndrome and tennis elbow. To help keep your mom injury-free this summer, here are some tips and gardening equipment ideas that can make gardening a little easier.
With gardening, good form is very important as well as not overdoing any one activity. A common problem is that gardeners often kneel or squat, putting extra pressure on their knees. Then, to spare their knees, they might stand and bend over for long stretches to weed, dig and plant, straining their back and spine.
To help your mom protect her body, she needs to warm up before beginning. Start by stretching, focusing on the legs and lower back. And keep changing positions and activities. Don’t spend hours weeding a flowerbed. After 15 minutes of weeding, she should stand up, stretch, and switch to another activity like pruning the bushes or just take a break.
It’s also important that she recognizes her physical limitations and doesn’t try to do too much all at once. And, when lifting heaver objects, she needs to remember to use her legs to preserve her back. She can do this by keeping the item close to her body and squatting to keep her back as vertical as possible.
The right gardening equipment can help too. Kneeling pads can protect knees, and garden seats or stools are both back and knee savers. Lightweight garden carts can make hauling bags of mulch, dirt, plants or other heavy objects much easier. And long-handled gardening tools can help ease the strain on the back by keeping your mom in a standing upright position versus bent over. There are also ergonomic gardening tools with fatter handles and other design features that can make lawn and garden activities a little easier.
The chore of carrying water or handling a heavy, awkward hose can also be difficult for older gardeners. Some helpful options include lightweight fabric hoses instead of heavy rubber hoses; soaker or drip hoses that can be snaked throughout the garden; thin coil hoses that can be used on the patio or small areas; a hose caddy and reel for easier hose transport around the yard; and a self-winding hose chest that puts the hose up automatically. There are also a variety of ergonomic watering wands that are lightweight, easy to grip, and reach those hard to-get-to plants.
To find ergonomic gardening tools and the recommended watering aids, check with local retail stores that sell lawn and garden supplies or try online retailers like Gardeners.com or RadiusGarden.com.
If your mom’s backyard garden has become too much for her to handle, she should consider elevated garden beds or container gardening – using big pots, window boxes, hanging baskets, barrels or tub planters. This is a much easier way to garden because it eliminates much of the bend and strain of gardening but still gives her the pleasure of making things grow. Trellises are another nice option that would allow her to garden vertically instead of horizontally.
How a Government Pension Might Reduce your Social Security Benefits
Dear Savvy Senior,
As a teacher for 20 years, I receive a pension from a school system that did not withhold Social Security taxes from my pay. After teaching, I’ve been working for a small company where I do pay Social Security taxes. Now, approaching age 65, I would like to retire and apply for my Social Security benefits. But I’ve been told that my teacher’s pension may cause me to lose some of my Social Security. Is that true?
Ready to Retire
Yes, it’s true. It’s very likely that your Social Security retirement benefits will be reduced under the terms of a government rule called the Windfall Elimination Provision (or WEP).
The WEP affects people who receive pensions from jobs in which they were not required to pay Social Security taxes – for example, police officers, firefighters, teachers and state and local government workers whose employers were not part of the national Social Security system. People who worked for nonprofit or religious organizations before 1984 may also be outside the system.
Many of these people, like you, are also eligible for Social Security retirement or disability benefits based on other work they did over the course of their career for which Social Security taxes were paid.
Because of your teacher’s pension, Social Security will use a special formula to calculate your retirement benefits, reducing them compared to what you’d otherwise get.
How much they’ll be reduced depends on your work history. But one rule that generally applies is that your Social Security retirement benefits cannot be cut by more than half the size of your pension. And the WEP does not apply to survivor benefits. If you’re married and die, your dependents can get a full Social Security payment, unless your spouse has earned his or her own government pension for which they didn’t pay Social Security taxes. If that’s the case, Social Security has another rule known as the Government Pension Offset (or GPO) that affects spouses or widows/widowers benefits.
Under the GPO, spousal and survivor benefits will be cut by two-thirds of the amount of their pension. And if their pension is large enough, their Social Security spousal or survivor benefits will be zero.
There are a few exceptions to these rules most of which are based on when you entered the Social Security workforce.
Why Do These Rules Exist?
According to the Social Security Administration, the reason Congress created the WEP (in 1983) and GPO (in 1977) was to create a more equitable system. People who get both a pension from non-Social Security work and benefits from Social Security-covered work get an unfair windfall due to the formula of how benefit amounts are calculated.
These rules ensure that government employees who don’t pay Social Security taxes would end up with roughly the same income as people who work in the private sector and do pay them.
For more information on the WEP visit SSA.gov/planners/retire/wep.html, where you’ll also find a link to their WEP online calculator to help you figure out how much your Social Security benefits may be reduced. And for more information on GPO, including a GPO calculator, see SSA.gov/planners/retire/gpo.html.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.