Did you know that 1 in 4 Americans over the age of 65 depend on Social Security as their sole income? In 2013 the average Social Security payment to retirees was $1294 a month. In my metropolitan city the average 2014 monthly rent was $1284. That's a $10.00 difference. Maybe you're not planning to receive social security or don't think you'd need to rely on it but tell me, would $1294 meet your needs? The answer for me is no. That's why I've been thinking about how to help our peers living with low incomes or in "senior poverty."
Poverty is a personal problem. I don't mean to imply that people are in poverty because they have personal problems---we all do. Poverty is a personal problem in the sense that the only way we can really understand it is to make a personal connection with someone living that lifestyle. That's why I believe we'll make strides in solving poverty when we get involved with building or volunteering for strong local programs. As an abstract, as a collection of statistics, poverty is complex but it's decipherable on a smaller scale. As a whole there are so many different reasons that people fall into poverty and so many different circumstances that influence what happens next but in our neighborhoods the problems aren't so confounding. We can know that someone lost their job or suffered a health crisis or faced the death of a loved one. We can see people who repeatedly sit on our street corners. We can see the quality of our neighborhoods and what they need to improve. We can know when our neighbors are in crisis. The insight we often lack is how our action can help.
In later life poverty occurs for reasons any of us might encounter: job loss, divorce, death, market correction, pension collapses, mental health trauma, caregiving demands or health catastrophes. "As long as I could continue working I was able to make my payments and pay my bills. I got sick and I couldn't work any longer so I had to file for bankruptcy," explains a former barbershop owner of 20 years, Lydia, in the video below. Financial poverty creates increasingly complex choices that people of means would never imagine as former RN, Sandy, explains, "Once you start going to the doctor...it's a co-pay [of] $25-30 dollars to see the doctor, 25-30 dollars to get your lab tests. [But] to get x-rays or any other specialized care...you [find that you] don't have the money. For a lot of seniors their health care stops right there."
We're limiting poverty through national programs and we need to preserve that progress but we can dramatically reduce poverty by helping the people in our view; our neighbors, our friends, our co-workers. We can eliminate the problem of invisible poverty by making connections with people in need; low income seniors, elders in nursing homes, people on the street. Will we be the first generation to say that we took our own social problems to heart and found solutions?
Boomers and active members of the Silent Generation are uniquely equipped for this project. We have the empathy to imagine what it is to be old and hungry or unable to travel to resources. We understand how it may feel to worry about meeting expenses and not be healthy enough to work. Along with empathy we have unique experience developing creative projects to help others. For example, we've launched a grassroots local movement across the nation called Virtual Villages to support ourselves, our peers, and our parents as we age at home. Virtual Villages rally local volunteers to provide aging in place services at a modest annual fee. Could we also build a grassroots local movement to alleviate senior hunger? We've learned how to open our houses and live multi-generationally to help our children, grandchildren, and parents survive hard times. Could we also work to find housing for our homeless peers? We know how to provide for one another. We have experience seeing how our support promotes well being and independence. Let's age well together. Let's commit to solving senior poverty.
Does it sound idealistic? Take a first step. Listen to the vimeo of Sandy, Dollie, Lydia and Myrtle. Pick one of the ladies and consider what you could do to improve her life? Maybe you need more information about her needs or maybe something jumps out at you right away. Next, talk to your local senior center, church, or senior services organization about how you could meet someone in need. Ask him/her: "what would help"? Part of the need in poverty is satisfied just by caring, listening, and offering to help.
Sandy, the RN in the vimeo, says seniors go without healthcare because they don't have money for advanced health screening. Can you help by:
- Starting a foundation
- Talking to doctors on behalf of seniors
- Organizing friends to adopt a senior
- Starting a gofundme appeal for senior health costs
- Rallying your church to adopt a senior
- Donating to co-pay and medicine assistance programs such as the Patient Advocate Foundation or Needy Meds.
- Supporting the National Senior Citizens Law Center
Many elders need help with transportation to and from the doctor. Consider:
- Starting a local group of volunteer drivers
- Joining an existing group of volunteer drivers
Elders need clothing. We have Dress for Success networks to help women look for employment why couldn't we start a similar clothing bank for our peers in need? There are so many ways to help and so many in need.
Though most of our low income peers forfeit anything to stay sheltered some can't avoid homelessness. Homelessness among people over 62 continues to increase and is expected to jump 116 percent by 2050. The foreclosure crisis, for instance, peaked in 2009 but the damage is done for seniors now displaced and living on the street or in their car. We can help by:
- Establishing local foundations to offset car repair for neighbors using their car as shelter
- Donating repair skills or skills in other areas
- Giving free haircuts
- Providing free dental care
- Donating cellphones
- Starting a website or Fbook page to raise money for homeless people in your community
- Joining the #hashtaglunchbag movement
Poverty is personal. We can end it through our involvement and personal commitment. Won't you join me?
Update November 2015: N.York Mayor de Blasio attempts to align older Americans with existing benefits with his pilot program, Integrated Benefits. De Blasio is reacting to news that older Americans aren't connecting with benefits they're eligible for.