Bringing Low-Income Elders Out of the Shadows

Robyn's Read | April 26, 2016

We should celebrate the fact that poverty among older adults is decreasing, writes Robyn Stone. But let’s not spend too much time patting ourselves on the back.

The issue of poverty got me into the aging field 40 years ago. I was horrified to learn that 33% of older Americans lived below the poverty line. I wanted to do something about that.

As I look back on the last 4 decades, I take some satisfaction in knowing that our nation has made incredible strides in improving the lives and the financial stability of its older citizens.

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, a much lower percentage -- 10% -- of our older citizens were living in poverty in 2014.

We should celebrate the fact that poverty among older adults is decreasing. But let’s not spend too much time patting ourselves on the back.

We haven’t yet won the War on Poverty that Lyndon Johnson launched in 1964. If anything, we’re facing more serious challenges, particularly in the area of elder poverty, than we did back then.

That’s because the rising numbers of financially secure older adults is forcing poor elders into the shadows, where they are virtually invisible to those of us who are in the best position to help them.

Shining a Spotlight on Poor Elders

AARP Foundation helped to shed an important spotlight on poverty among older people at this spring’s conference of the American Society on Aging (ASA). Foundation President Lisa Marsh Ryerson helped raise the issue of poverty throughout the conference, sharing some sobering statistics, like the fact that:

  • 6.4 million older Americans live at or below the federal poverty level of $11,800 a year.
  • Being a woman, a person of color, or a person in poor health increases the odds of poverty.

During a Foundation-sponsored panel on poverty and health, I shared with ASA members the work that LeadingAge is doing to combat elder poverty by promoting better access to affordable senior housing.

Our advocacy team and the Center for Applied Research (CFAR) are working in tandem to convince policy makers to expand the affordable housing stock so older adults have a decent place to live, and spend less of their limited incomes on shelter.

We’re also working, with support from AARP Foundation, to urge policy makers, housing providers, and health care organizations acknowledge -- and then support -- the ability of affordable senior housing properties to improve the health and well-being of low-income older adults.

Housing as a Platform for Wellness

Tapping into the health-promoting potential of housing properties becomes even more critical when you consider recent CFAR research showing that older adults living in subsidized housing are extremely vulnerable:

  • They are more likely to be eligible for both Medicare (due to age) and Medicaid (due to low income).
  • They are also more likely to be sicker than their counterparts living in the community.

These research findings illustrate the very real challenges we face. But they also give us an incredible opportunity to view our existing housing infrastructure as a platform for delivering critically important services and supports to low-income older adults.

CFAR research on the value of housing plus services has added to our knowledge of how the availability of services and programs in affordable senior housing properties could help improve the health of older people, and allow them to age in community instead of expensive care settings. We’ve also found that a housing plus services model in Vermont is slowing the growth of health care spending.

LeadingAge would like to see housing-based service hubs created in every single American community – urban, suburban, and rural.

Affordable senior housing properties are especially suited to this role because they already have a tremendous infrastructure for promoting health. 

  • Many of these properties have service coordinators who are trained to connect residents with community resources that can address their health and service needs.
  • Most have community spaces that could be used to conduct wellness programs and host primary care clinics or other health-related services.
  • Housing properties can offer economies of scale to service agencies and health care providers that want to bring programs and services to large numbers of older people living under one roof.

Out of the Shadows

Low-income older adults depend on LeadingAge members for a variety of services and supports.

This gives us a keen responsibility to use our current housing infrastructure as a platform for delivering services and programs that support these individuals.

We also have a responsibility to give low-income elders a strong voice in decisions that affect them.

We need to make sure that the challenges these elders face are adequately addressed at all levels of government, particularly when decisions are being made about housing, transportation, health, workforce, economic development, environmental contamination, and poverty.

In short, we need to bring low-income elders out of the shadows so they can join the rest of us in pursuing good health, financial stability, and quality of life.