SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 17, 2014

Column: Economic struggles ahead for an aging population

Sue Gabriel and MaryAnn Holak
The Salem News

---- — A recent report of the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission indicates that 17 percent of Beverly residents are living at or below the poverty level. Poverty is also on the rise in the neighboring communities of Salem, Peabody and Gloucester. The daunting cost of living on the North Shore surely contributes to this troubling statistic.

Today in Beverly, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is close to $900 per month, while a two-bedroom is more than $1,000 per month at best. Our New England climate dictates higher spending on heating, and inefficient older homes with little insulation drive the costs even higher. Gas prices have steadily risen since the recession, making travel of any kind an increasingly more expensive activity, including increased fees for traveling on public transportation options such as buses, trains and subways. Health care co-pays, premiums and prescription drug costs also have gone up and have contributed to the strain on people’s wallets. For renters and homeowners alike, food is more expensive in the Northeast because of shipping costs that cause higher prices as you move west to east across the country.

The cost of basic necessities — food, shelter and healthcare are proving very troublesome to seniors living on a fixed income. According to the 2012 city census, 9,126 individuals age 60 and over reside in Beverly. In other words, 23 percent of Beverly’s population falls in to the “older adult” category. This number is projected to increase steadily until the year 2030 when the youngest baby boomers turn 65 years old. In many cases, fixed-income dollars are not allowing today’s seniors to balance a sustainable budget. Many report choosing to pay either for heat or medicine or food — there is truly an urgency in our need to plan and reach out to our oldest community members.

A 2012 Wider Opportunities for Women report finds that, “Massachusetts has the biggest gap between median income and the necessary expenses for single, elderly renters in the nation. In dollar terms, the gap is over $10,000 — meaning the median combined Social Security, pension and other retirement income for a single MA renter age 65+ covers only 62 percent of costs for such essentials as food, housing, transportation and out-of-pocket health costs. Moreover, the elder economic security gap is continuing to grow in Massachusetts and especially so for older women.” Forbes Magazine has recently named Essex County as the seventh most overpriced area in the country to live. These reports are indeed troubling and point out the tremendous gap between retirement resources available and the dollar costs to remain as vital, active members of our communities.

Members of the Greatest Generation, who are now 89 years and older, lived through the Great Depression and World War II when bread lines, rations and the fear of not knowing where the next meal would come from was a way of life. Those of the Silent Generation, born between 1926 and 1944, also remember a time when food choices were limited and lines were long for certain commodities like butter, eggs and sugar. The Baby Boomer generation has lived through more than one recession where those in the 60- to 69-year-old cohort were especially hard hit. They have faced more than their fair share of job loss and underemployment and face economic insecurity due to vanishing wages and loss of potential pension/retirement funds. At the same time that Baby Boomers are coming of retirement age, those of the earlier generations are living longer, increasing the number of people ages 60 and over who are in need of services.

The Meals on Wheels Association of America reports that “nearly one in six seniors may not know when they will have their next meal or where it will come from.” In Beverly, that would mean more than 1,500 older adults face potential hunger as a regular condition. The USDA also notes that older adults are reporting reduced quality, variety, or desirability in their diet, and some are reporting disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.

It is well known that many older adults are reluctant to ask for or accept help. Even though they have always contributed to the life of the community, they do not want to be a burden in their older years. Many have lived through difficult times in the past and feel they can endure again. Some have been culturally conditioned to be fiercely independent. Some have lost their ability to recognize their own need. Others have no family to call on for help. The very same people who have picked up grandchildren from day care, written a check to a favorite cause, smiled at the bus driver who was having a rough day, or brought a can of tuna fish to church for the monthly food drive are often going without the help needed to maintain their independence and a modicum of dignity. As members of the human race, we all thrive on interdependent, caring relationships. These relationships are what make a community. Seniors want to continue to be part of the community, and they don’t want to be a liability. In this regard, it is easy to envision a senior donating food to a food drive while going hungry herself.

Much like being diagnosed with a medical issue and taking prescribed medication on a regular and timely basis, so, too, must intervention and services be put in place early and regularly. Agencies serving seniors on the North Shore are recognizing an urgency toward planning for the social service needs of our oldest residents. Work is also being done on the state level. Last year Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law the establishment of the Elder Economic Security Commission, charged with submitting recommendations to improve the economic security of elders by June 30.

The good news is that there are already some community resources to mitigate hunger and to provide other basic needs for our older population. Individuals, faith communities and agencies are at the ready to respond. Beverly Bootstraps Food Pantry and summertime mobile farmers markets at senior housing units are just two of the ways seniors’ food needs are being met. At the Beverly Council on Aging and Senior Community Center, Seniorcare Inc. operates both a Meals on Wheels program and a congregate lunch site. Outreach workers at both Bootstraps and the Senior Center are able to help older adults complete SNAP (food stamps) applications, apply for fuel assistance and tax credits. Beverly churches also take turns offering a free evening meals every night of the week.

In Beverly, no senior need feel that he or she must endure the economic insecurity of aging. The classic Beatles line “I get by with a little help from my friends” promotes the idea that we are all better off with help from our friends. In our Beverly community, we can all work together to make a difference in the life of our elders. Please join our conversation and share your ideas for improving the “golden years” of our oldest citizens. Send your thoughts to sgabriel@beverlybootstraps.org and mholak@beverlyma.gov.

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MaryAnn Holak is the executive director of the Beverly Council on Aging and Senior Community Center. Sue Gabriel is the executive director of Beverly Bootstraps.