Too Many Seniors Facing Poverty – What Family Caregivers Can Do

The population is aging, not just here in the United States but across the globe. We have all heard the statistics, that by 2050 one fifth of the US population will be 65 or older.

Add to that the number of seniors 85 and older being the fastest growing population segment and the number of centenarians rising dramatically and it’s clear more of us will be living longer than ever before.

These statistics sure mean we can expect to see a rise in many other numbers as well, such as the number of caregivers needed, the number of older adults who need long term medical care, and the number of people suffering with Alzheimer’s disease.

What the statistics don’t say is how we will pay for it. Are seniors – and the programs that support them – going to have enough money to meet the needs of a much larger elder population?

If not, the number of seniors who are hungry, poor and even homeless will also rise in the coming decades.

Senior Poverty – A Growing Problem

Our seniors are projected to be economically vulnerable as they age, more so than the seniors of today. Many are potentially at risk for financial hardship if faced with even one major or unforeseen event.

Nearly half of all seniors are projected to be living on incomes less than two times the supplement poverty threshold. Social security is keeping most elderly people above the poverty level, which is not to say they are comfortable. To be clear, the supplemental poverty level is different than the federal poverty level because it includes the income received from government assistance programs including Social Security, SNAP benefits, housing subsidies, heating assistance and other programs.

Many older adults are living on fixed incomes, whether via a pension or their social security benefits. Fewer people are retiring with a vested pension plan at this time and that number will continue to fall. Older adults have a lower family income than non-elderly adults. For those over 80, their income is less than half the income of those between 18-64 years. Even when controlling for family size, the older adults’ incomes are lower than non-elderly adults by an average of over $13,000.

Out of pocket medical expenses further put elderly people at risk for poverty if these costs increase emergently.

It has been suggested that a better measurement of senior’s financial vulnerability than the poverty or supplemental poverty levels is to use the Elder Economic Security Standard Index (Elder Index). The Index estimates how much it costs seniors to live in different areas of the country and is more comprehensive including food, housing, healthcare and transportation as well as day to day living costs such as personal care and sales taxes. Unfortunately, this index is not yet widely used.

The shocking reality to face is that many baby boomers will reach 70 years old with little savings or retirement income, without a pension and will be relying largely on Social Security. Without intervention, that means a growing number of homeless seniors.

Senior Homelessness

Yes, we mean that — seniors out in the street. It is hard to even consider that this would be a possibility. We talk all the time about seniors wanting to live out their lives in their own homes, but what if they can’t afford the home, taxes or upkeep?

It is true. Older adults over 50 have increasingly become homeless or living “sheltered.” The cause seems to be the rising prevalence of poverty in this age group and also the decreasing availability of affordable elderly housing. This trend was seen beginning in 2008.

In 2007 it was estimated that there are nine seniors waiting for every unit of elderly housing. Once displaced, seniors are distrustful and prefer to sleep on the street versus the shelter. Many shelters are inaccessible to frailer seniors who can’t go up stairs or wait in long lines. Elders are also more prone to being victim of crime when homeless. Homeless seniors often die before age 62.

Seniors Who Are Hungry

The number of seniors who go hungry everyday would also surprise many people, often including their own family members.

There are 4.8 million seniors who are food insecure. Many seniors are unable to afford, purchase or prepare their own meals.

There are many programs available to provide healthy foods to seniors but there is a shortage of seniors taking advantage of the programs such as SNAP, Meals on Wheels, or Food Vouchers.

Attending a senior day care at the senior center would ensure more seniors have access to at least one nutritious meal on a weekday.

The National Council on Aging is working to change those statistics and has promoted a BenefitsCheckUp for every senior to be sure they are accessing the benefits for which they are entitled especially those that prevent food insecurity.

A malnourished senior is at greater risk for medical issues, higher healthcare costs and falls which could result in long term facility placement.

Family Caregiver Steps to Fight Poverty, Homelessness and Hunger?

Family caregivers can make strides to keep their senior loved ones healthy at home having their basic needs met.

  1. Observe your senior closely for warning signs of unmet needs, such as weight loss, increased confusion, increasing falls, inability to pay bills, lack of adequate heat or air-conditioning, minimal food in the panty or refrigerator, decreased socialization.
  2. Go online at BenefitsCheckUp to see if your senior will qualify for benefits they are not currently receiving. Many seniors are stigmatized by ‘charity’ and afraid they will take from others who need it more. This couldn’t be further from the truth as many of the programs are entitlement funded so their getting benefits does not take away from others. Don’t wait for them to ask for help!
  3. Follow up to be sure that your senior is receiving what they need once the programs are in process.
  4. Open the discussion about finances. Do they need to see a financial planner or elder law attorney who can advise them about funding resources or strategies to be sure that they keep their home? Do they need a budget now to set aside ample funds for their housing expenses? Are there benefits that will help them with medical needs to allow for money to be available for housing?
  5. Review their transportation needs and the plan for keeping them independent to carry groceries home, getting to the bank or doctor, and remaining engaged in their community.

Losing ground on any one of these fronts could make a serious impact on the ability of your senior to stay financially stable and physically and emotionally healthy. Seek help to make plans for the future before it is too late. If they lose their independence, their home, or their health, they may become another statistic. We know that is not what you want for their golden years!