Many older adults struggle to make ends meet every month, unaware that billions of dollars’ worth of aid is going unclaimed.
Elaine Ross was living in central Florida in 2007 when a hurricane destroyed her home. Her insurance didn’t cover most of her belongings, so she started working two jobs to compensate. She and her husband were able to buy another home. Then, a pair of falls resulted in a broken leg and three hip replacement surgeries. Pain forced her to quit working in 2016. She now gets $919 per month in Social Security Disability Insurance.
Her husband also quit working in 2016, due to back troubles. He has a Social Security check of $1,051 for a grand total of $23,600 and change annually between the two. Their savings are long gone, spent on emergencies, and they had to sell their home. They now rent a place in Alabama for $540 a month, but they are struggling, and inflation has been a major challenge.
“It’s awful,” Elaine says. “I know I’m not the only old person in this situation, but it pains me that I lived my whole life doing all the right things to be in the situation I’m in.”
Elder Index Reflects True Cost
About half of single older adults have incomes below what is needed to pay for essential expenses, according to researchers at the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. They developed the Elder Index to measure the true cost of living for older adults. The index gathers information from public databases to calculate the cost of health care, housing, food, transportation, and other expenses for seniors on an essentials-only budget. The amount is adjusted according to their level of health, whether they rent or own housing, and if they are living alone or as part of a couple.
In every state, the cost of living for older adults is greater than federal poverty thresholds, which are often used to calculate need. For instance, the Elder Index for 2021 estimated a
single older adult in good health renting housing needed $27,096, on average. That amount is $14,100 more than the federal poverty level, which is used to determine eligibility for everything from Medicaid to food stamps and housing assistance.
“The poverty rate just doesn’t cut it as a realistic look at the struggles older adults are having,” says William Arnone, chief executive officer of the National Academy of Social Insurance. “The Elder Index is a reality check.”
Aid is Available
There is help for older adults, but they must apply. 14 million adults age 60 and above qualify for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) but they haven’t applied. Another 3.5 million seniors age 65 or older could benefit from Medicare Savings Programs that cover Medicare premiums and cost sharing, but they haven’t signed up. And 30% to 45% of older adults would qualify for the Medicare Part D Low-Income Subsidy Program if they would apply.
Not all cost cutting programs are need based. For instance, home-delivered meals and legal assistance for seniors in danger of home foreclosure or eviction are available to all older adults, although the neediest may be served first. And property tax breaks are available to all homeowners 65 and up.
“You’ve earned these benefits,” says Josh Hodges, chief customer officer at the National Council on Aging, a group that advocates for seniors. Older adults should think of these benefits “like their Medicare, like their Social Security.”
Where to Look for Help
The first organization to contact is your local Area Agency on Aging, which can perform benefits assessments or point you to a group that can. Staffers will often help seniors fill out application forms for benefits from federal, state, and local programs that offer help with transportation, health care, utility charges, and other basic needs. Don’t wait until an emergency to see if you qualify. And if you would rather do the checking yourself, use BenefitsCheckUp.
“Even if you think you might not qualify, you should apply because there are different rules across states,” said Meredith Freed, a senior policy analyst for the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Program on Medicare Policy.
As of this writing, the cost-of-living adjustment to Social Security recipients is expected to be 8.7% in 2023, according to The Senior Citizens League, a non-partisan group that advocates for older adults. That is the highest percentage in 41 years. While that will throw a lifeline to older Americans, it is important to remember that much more help is available for those who reach out to get it.
These federal programs may provide you with the lifeline you need:
- Extra Help – Part D prescription drug plan subsidies up to $5,100 per year
- LIHEAP – The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program
- Veterans Benefits
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional financial advice from a qualified financial advisor.
We hope this information is helpful to you in the important work you do as a family caregiver.
For more resources, subscribe to our free eNewsletter!