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Program keeps bounce in senior citizens' steps
Bern Dean, 78, others get a lift from helping out the Forest Service

PLEASANT GROVE -- For Bern Dean, working 40 hours a week has become more of a habit than a necessity.

At 78 years old, Dean just can't quit."I don't want to retire. I've worked all my life. I'm used to working," Dean said.

After three years of retirement, Dean began fearing the effects of having too much free time. He became antsy and he couldn't break the daily routine of waking up and going to work.

"I see so many people my age that are hobbling down the sidewalk -- I don't want to join them."

Dean manages the South Fork Canyon warehouse as part of the Forest Service's Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP). Since 1965 the Forest Service has offered jobs in the office and out in the field to low-income seniors, 55 years or older. The program's purpose is to teach seniors new skills or, as in Dean's case, allow the seniors to use abilities they've already acquired.

The seniors are paid a "supplemental income" of minimum wage through a Department of Labor grant. The money, however, isn't usually the reason that seniors apply.

"The senior citizen program doesn't pay a lot of money, but it keeps you occupied and keeps you active," Dean said.

The work invigorates minds and bodies that might otherwise be left to waste, says National Uinta Forest SCSEP coordinator Loyal Clark. Some seniors told Clark that if it wasn't for this opportunity, they would be sitting at home.

"They feel like hobbies are just not filling the time like they need to," Clark said. "The jobs keep their mental alertness honed."

Despite their years of experience, finding employment in the technological work force is challenging. Many give up the idea, thinking they have nothing left to offer society, Clark says. Even with competitive skills, seniors are a short-term investment, as they usually look for only two or three years of work.

"Most of the companies would rather invest in a younger work force," Clark said.

Health is also a concern for employers, and the Forest Service is no exception.

Clark says they evaluate the physical condition of the applicants and place them in a position where they can be productive without jeopardizing their health.

Dean will be the first to admit that he's not as spry as he used to be. But even an open heart surgery, a draining of a clogged artery and a knee operation couldn't keep him from his job.

"I'm not the bundle of energy I was to begin with, but I told the people that when I don't think I'm productive enough to earn my money, I won't be here," he said.

Until then he takes his job one year at a time. "I know I'll be here for this year. If my health stays as good as it is, I'll stay for additional years after that," he said. "So far, there's no reason for me to quit."

With a 13-year-old daughter left to raise, Dean has the motivation to keep going. His wife Flor says his job with the Forest Service is what has kept him young.

"He's getting stronger instead of weaker in his old age," she said. "My husband is not the kind of person that just sits, he thought if he just sat around he'd die sooner."

Dean recommends that other seniors follow his lead. He says if they do not want to return to work, they can become involved in volunteer programs in the schools and the community.

"I would advise people to stay active, both mentally and physically," Dean said. "You don't have to look very far to find avenues where you can stay productive."

The Forest Service employs 35 seniors each year for part-time positions. Dean works 20 hours with the SCSEP program and another 20 hours as a regular Forest Service employee.