Once you have ruled out your ability to perform your past relevant work at Step 4 of Social Security’s sequential disability evaluation, then at Step 5 of the evaluation Social Security considers your ability to transition to other work, that is less demanding physically or mentally (or perhaps both).
The Step 5 stage of the evaluation is the first time Social Security considers your age as a vocational factor in its analysis. Social Security treats someone age 55 or older quite differently than someone under the age of 50 at this stage of the evaluation process, due to the operation of the Medical-Vocational Guidelines.
The Medical-Vocational Guidelines make certain assumptions about a person’s ability to transition to other work, depending upon age, education, physical exertional level, and acquired job skills. Based upon those factors, the guidelines direct a finding of “disabled” or “not disabled.” If you are over the age of 55 and limited to Light exertional work, the guidelines direct a finding of “disabled” in the absence of transferable job skills or recent education allowing direct entry to skilled work. Similarly, the guidelines direct a finding of “disabled” for those over age 50 who are limited to unskilled work at the Sedentary exertional level.
However, the Medical-Vocational Guidelines operate based on physical limitations, not mental limitations. So a person unable to work due to limitations from mental health symptoms alone gets no advantage at Step 5 due to being over age 55. Common mental functional limitations assessed by Social Security, such as a limitation to simple tasks or a limitation to not interact with the general public, do not prevent use of the guidelines. A limitation to simple tasks would likely preclude the transfer of acquired job skills at Step 5, but it does not otherwise help with a finding of disability under the Medical-Vocational Guidelines.
Those over the age of 55 suffering mental rather than physical limitations effectively have a higher burden of proof at Step 5. In the absence of any physical limitations, one has to rule out a person’s ability to do any work on a full-time basis, including Medium or Heavy exertional unskilled work. That is much more difficult. I always explore physical limitations of clients over the age of 55, even for those who can no longer work primarily due to their mental health. If there is a medically determinable physical impairment that limits a person to Light or Sedentary work, then they will prevail at Step 5 (in the absence of transferable skills). It doesn’t matter that the physical impairment was not the reason the client could no longer perform their past relevant work.
In summary, a person who can no longer perform their highly skilled past work at Step 4 due to their mental health could be denied benefits at Step 5 in the absence of severe physical impairments, because they could theoretically work as an unskilled laborer, even if the unskilled job pays a fraction of the highly skilled work that the person used to perform.
That is why for those over 55, there is an easy way and a hard way to win your case.