If your family has had difficult conversations about the ability of an older family member to continue farming safely, the first thing to remember is that everyone starts to age from the time they are born. As a group, farmers are the most rapidly aging workforce in the United States, with an average age of 58 years; compared to the average workforce age of 42.
The problem for farm families is that most farmers simply don’t stop farming.
“Farmers don’t retire,” said Deborah Reed, an ag nurse who specializes in gerontology. “A lot of the generic things that we see as remedies and solutions for the main workforce don’t resonate too well with people as they enter later mid-life. There’s no standard retirement age, no performance evaluation. Farmers say, ‘we work til we drop’ — they work because they like it.”
Reed outlines the changes that occur as people age. “In your mid 20s, you’ve reached maximum respiratory capacity,” she said. “You can go longer, run faster and jump higher because your lungs are at peak. After that, it’s downhill, and if you’re a smoker, it goes downhill double-time.”
Most people sail through their 30s, but the long-arm syndrome happens when people reach their forties. “The lens of your eyes yellow and flatten,” said Reed. “If you see people trying to read restaurant menus by holding them out at arm’s length, that’s presbyopia. Then by the time you’re in your 50s, you have snap, crackle and pop syndrome. Your joints begin to lose that nice WD-40 that’s in between, and the collagen begins to compress.”
Reed says that people in their 60s start to see noticeable differences in their skin, including brown freckles from excessive sun exposure. The fatty layer just under the skin starts to disappear, which can cause skin to seem thin and brittle.
“By the time you’re in your 70s, when you reach for things, you may not be able to feel them,” said Reed. “That’s because the nerve endings in your fingers and toes begin to decrease. If you’re diabetic, that happens at an even younger age.”
Older farmers are often in pain due to arthritis or other joint issues. This means slower reflexes and reaction time, which translates to potential safety issues. Hearing loss has been documented in farm teens, and is cumulative over a person’s lifespan.
Exposure to sun is another result of aging on the farm. “Farmers are second only to commercial fishermen in incidence of cataracts because most farmers don’t wear sunglasses,” said Reed. “Farmers also have more basal cell skin cancer, and more melanoma, which is a killer.”
Reed says that as people age, recovery times for minor illnesses can be prolonged and broken bones take longer to heal. Co-morbidities, or illnesses that happen at the same time, increase. There’s also a synergistic effect — one ailment is compounded by another.
Dealing with aging family members who insist that they’re not going to stop farming is challenging. “They’d rather rust out than rest out,” said Reed. “They won’t, and can’t sit still. They’ll say, ‘I can’t think of a time I wouldn’t be raising cattle unless I was dead or disabled. They are going to do this, so us telling them not to is ridiculous and we lose all credibility.”
One key is to find out what older farmers perceive as hazards. Through a survey, Reed found that older farmers were concerned about getting hurt on equipment, not being able to handle a chain saw as effectively, dodging cattle in a pen and stress. Family members had somewhat different concerns for those farmers, including balance issues, vision loss, long hours, fatigue, working alone and especially stress.
If stress is the common denominator, what’s the best way to deal with it? Remove as much stress as possible, make plans together, communicate often and openly and offer options that don’t insult the farmer’s abilities.
When talking with farmers about potential age-related limitations, farmers are usually more concerned with causing injury to others than they are with injuring themselves. Avoid confrontational conversations that cause the person to shut down and not listen. Consider whether they’ve been receptive to previous suggestions and make new suggestions accordingly.
Communication devices such as cell phones can help bridge the gap between concerned family members and the farmer — the farmer agrees to notify someone when he’s headed to the field and what time he expects to return.
On a positive note, older farmers often become more vigilant about machinery maintenance so that they don’t have to do as much repair work. Older farmers also tend to do more thoughtful task planning and make plans to conserve their own energy, and when possible, they recruit younger people to do some of the more difficult tasks.
Reed found that older farmers will often do self-assessments of their abilities, but prefer to stop doing things when they choose to, not when someone tells them they should. Many older farmers realize that they’ve abused their bodies and hope that the younger generation will learn to accept help sooner so that they can farm longer.
Family members can direct certain tasks to younger members of the family or farm team, and advise the next generation to consult older farmers for advice.
“The culture of farming is the key,” said Reed. “Being proactive helps. Work on little things before they become big issues or the source of injury.”