U.S. seniors are increasingly falling into poverty, and healthcare administrators and advocates fear the problem will worsen with the aging of the baby-boom generation.
At the county level, funding from the federal Older Americans Act supports home care and community services for seniors. But a looming $480 billion federal budget deficit could lead to cuts.
Lu Verne Mulberg, director of the Riverside County Office on Aging in California, said that cuts “would be extremely serious” — diminishing her already stagnant $10 million dollar budget.
“Appropriate [funding] increases are not being made to keep up in with inflation or the rise in population,” she said, “which does translate into cuts in services.”
Any lack of growth in federal funding for seniors “effectively becomes a cut, because the senior population is growing,” said AARP spokesman Ernie Powell.
According to the federal Administration on Aging website, about 3.4 million seniors were “below the poverty level” in 2001 (defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as singles or couples with annual incomes of $9,000 and $12,000 or less, respectively).
Another 2.2 million were considered “near poor.”
Overall, more than twice as many minority elders were poor, as compared to whites.
More women were poor than men, and single Hispanic women living without their families were the worst off, with a 50.5 percent poverty rate.
Projected Census Bureau figures show that as baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) reach their golden years, the overall senior population will increase dramatically — as much as sixfold by 2040.
Advocates for seniors fear this will place greater pressure on state and federal governments for subsidized healthcare and adult care programs.
Golden State Leads
California leads the nation with 390,870 elders there living in poverty — and the state recognizes that the problem could get worse.
“We already have numerous programs to help seniors in place,” said John Carr, assistant director of external affairs for California’s Department of Aging. “But over the last century, this is the biggest bubble of people aging all at once … A lot of people are definitely hurting right now and the state has a big challenge to try to meet the needs of older citizens in the future.”
Congress of California Seniors legislative director Bill Powers said that inflated living costs and meager resources led to the current state of poverty among seniors, and future prospects don’t look good.
“Seniors are living longer, healthcare expenses are increasing and attempts to address the situation have been marginal,” he said. “We’re liable to see a significant increase in seniors with economic problems by 2015.”
San Francisco, with one of the highest costs of living in the country, has nearly 31 percent of local seniors living below the poverty line, according to a study by the local nonprofit group Planning for Elders.
“The numbers of homeless seniors you see is an indicator of how people on fixed incomes are getting really squeezed,” said the group’s executive director Marie Jobling.
Her organization estimates that of the approximately 15,000 homeless people in the city, about 3,300 are over 55 and vying for space in the city’s limited shelter network.
Benefit money from Social Security and other programs — seniors in the city get approximately $750.00 per month in government support — have not kept pace with the cost of living, she said, and many seniors are unable to cover the food, rent and health care expenses.
“When you get old, people have these chronic conditions that they’re not going to get better from,” Jobling said.
A turnaround may be on the way, with policymakers, advocates and caregivers increasingly looking to “assisted living” programs — which help seniors in their own homes with cooking, shopping, and other simple tasks that become more difficult with age — as a cost-effective and more dignified alternative to nursing homes.
“A nursing institution is the single most expensive way of taking care of people’s longterm needs,” said Paul Kleyman of the American Society on Aging and the editor of Aging Today.
He said that despite this expense, “70 percent of federal and state dollars are still channeled to institutional care.”
Mimi Toomey of the federal Administration on Aging said that new federal policy on aging could arise from the upcoming White House Conference on Aging in 2005.
Meanwhile, her agency is sponsoring a national summit in Orlando on September 21-23 to help senior-care providers prepare, according to the event website, “for the future wave of aging baby boomers.”
Toomey said the overall concern is “rebalancing the longterm care system” to enable seniors to maintain their independence.
There’s a lot of “stress and strain on the system,” she said. “More money is spent on nursing homes than community-based programs … If they’d rather stay home, they should have that choice.”
“Poorer than poor”
According to Kleyman, the government’s official count of impoverished elders is “artificially low” due to outdated federal definitions of poverty.
So far, attempts to update the definition of poverty have failed, putting seniors in a tight spot.
As a result, he said, “an older American has to be poorer than poor in order to show up in the federal poverty statistics” — and those that don’t qualify may be denied vital services.
Advocates say it’s a matter of social responsibility — one that may be left to the voters to solve.
“To me the dividing moment is going to be one minute after midnight, July 1, 2005,” Kleyman said. “After that moment there will be more baby boomers over the age of 50 than under 50. Sometime after that I expect to see some kind of critical mass of people saying, ‘What do you mean there’s no longterm care system in this country? Why not? We gotta do something about this.'”
“Elders have to be meaningfully engaged,” said Jobling. “We don’t create healthy conditions for elders, especially elders of color … playing golf and toodling around in their sports car, that’s not their future.”
But, she said, “seniors are dependable voters. It’s not that politicians ignore them … I think that seniors are not of one mind. When they’re organized, their issues move forward.”