‘Too expensive to live’: Anxious seniors try to cope with limited budgets
Economic insecurity is disrupting the lives of millions of older adults as soaring housing prices and inflation diminish the value of fixed incomes.
Across the country, seniors, who until recently successfully managed limited budgets, are increasingly anxious and anxious. Some have lost work during the covid-19 pandemic. Others face unaffordable rent increases and the prospect of losing their homes. Still others are experiencing significant sticker shock in grocery stores.
Dozens of older adults struggling with these challenges — none poor by government standards — wrote to me after I featured the Elder Index, a measure of the cost of aging, in a recent column. This tool, developed by researchers at the Institute of Gerontology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, suggests that 54% of older women who live alone have incomes below what is needed to pay for essential expenses. For single men, the figure is 45%.
To find out more, I spoke at length to three women who reached out to me and were willing to share some very personal details about their lives. Their stories illustrate how unexpected circumstances – the pandemic and its economic aftermath, natural disasters and domestic violence – can lead to unforeseen precariousness later in life, even for people who have worked hard for decades.
“Please help me! I just turned 65 and [am] invalid on invalidity. My husband is on Social Security and we can’t even afford groceries. That’s not what I had in mind for the golden years.
Asked about her troubles, Ross, 65, talks about a tornado that swept through central Florida on Groundhog Day in 2007, destroying her home. Too late, she learned that her insurance coverage was not adequate and would not replace most of her possessions.
To make ends meet, Ross started working two jobs: as a hairstylist and a customer service representative at a convenience store. With her new husband, Douglas Ross, a machinist, she bought a new house. Healing seemed possible.
Then Elaine Ross fell twice over several years, broke her leg and ended up having three hip replacements. Trying to manage diabetes and beset by pain, Ross stopped working in 2016 and applied for Social Security disability insurance, which now pays him $919 a month.
She has no pension. Douglas stopped working in 2019, no longer able to handle the demands of his job due to back pain. He doesn’t have a pension either. With Douglas’ Social Security payment of $1,051 a month, the couple live on just over $23,600 a year. Their meager savings evaporated with various emergency expenses and they sold their house.
Their rent in Empire, Alabama, where they now live, is $540 a month. Other regular expenses include $200 a month for their truck and gas, $340 for Medicare Part B premiums, $200 for hydro, $100 for medicine, $70 for phone, and hundreds of dollars — Ross did not provide an exact estimate – for food.
“All this inflation is killing us,” she said. Nationally, the price of food eaten at home is expected to rise 10 to 11 percent this year, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
To cut costs, Ross turned off his air conditioning during peak hours for electricity rates, from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., despite summer temperatures in the 90s or higher. “I sweat like a bullet and try to wear as little clothes as possible,” she said.
“It’s awful,” she continued. “I know I’m not the only older person in this situation, but it hurts me to have lived my whole life doing all the right things to be in the situation I find myself in.”
“After 33 years of living in my apartment, I will have to move since the new owners of the building are renovating all the apartments and charging rents of more than $1,800 to $2,500/month, which I cannot afford. .”
Cohen, 79, has been devastated since learning that the landlords of her apartment complex in Towson, Maryland, are rushing to raise rents as they upgrade units. She pays $989 a month for a one-bedroom apartment with a terrace. A similar, recently remodeled apartment was listed for sale for $1,900.
It’s a national trend that affects all age groups: as landlords respond to strong demand, rent increases this year have reached 9.2%.
Cohen was told her lease will be canceled at the end of January and she will be billed $1,200 a month until it’s time to renovate her apartment and move out.
“The devastation, I can’t tell you,” she said in a phone conversation. “Thirty-three years of living in one place shows you that I’m a very boring person, but I’m also a very practical and stable person. Never in a million years would I have thought something like this would happen to me.
During a long career, Cohen worked as a risk manager for department stores and as an insurance agent. She retired in 2007. Today, her monthly income is $2,426: $1,851 from Social Security after payments for Medicare Part B coverage were withdrawn, $308 from an Individual Retirement Account, and $267 from a small pension.
In addition to rent, Cohen estimates she spends $200 to $240 a month on food, $165 on phone and internet, $25 in Medicare Advantage premiums, $20 on dental, $22 on gas, and $100 or more. incidental costs such as cleaning products and toiletries. .
This does not include non-routine expenses, such as the new partial dentures Cohen needs (she assumes they will cost $1,200) or the hearing aids she purchased several years ago for $3,400. drawing from a small savings account. If he is forced to move, Cohen estimates the moving costs will exceed $1,000.
Cohen has looked for apartments in her area, but many are in smaller buildings with no elevators and not easily accessible to someone with severe arthritis, which she suffers from. One-bedroom units rent for $1,200 and up, not including utilities, which could be $200 or more more. Waiting lists for seniors’ residences exceed two years.
“I’m miserable,” Cohen told me. “I often wake up in the middle of the night because my brain doesn’t turn off. Everything is so overwhelming.
“It’s getting too expensive to be alive. I lost everything and I crumble on a daily basis because I don’t know how I can continue to survive with the cost of living.
England, 61, thought she would grow old in a three-bedroom house in Winchester, Va., which she said she bought with her partner in 1999. But that dream was shattered in January 2021.
Around this time, England learned to her surprise that her name was not on the deed to the house she was living in. She had thought it had been arranged and she contacted a Legal Aid lawyer, hoping to recover the money she had put into the property. Without proof of ownership, the attorney told her, she had no leg to stand on.
“My nest was the house. Let’s go. It was my investment. My peace of mind,” England told me.
England’s history is complicated. She and her partner ended their longtime romance in 2009 but continued to live together as friends, she told me. That changed during the pandemic when he stopped working and England’s job as a caterer and hospitality specialist came to an abrupt end.
“His personality changed a lot,” she said, and “I started being emotionally abused.”
Trying to cope, England signed up for Medicaid and held eight sessions with a domestic violence therapist. These ended in November 2021 and she has not been able to find another therapist since. “If I weren’t so worried about my housing situation, I think I could process and get over everything that happened,” she told me.
After leaving her home in early 2021, England moved to Ashburn, Va., where she rents an apartment for $1,511 a month. (She mistakenly thought she would qualify for assistance from Loudoun County.) With utilities and garbage removal included, the monthly total tops $1,700.
With an income of around $2,000 a month, which she tries to maintain by working whenever she can, England has less than $300 for everything else. She has no savings. “I don’t have a life. I don’t do anything but try to find a job, go to work and come home,” she said.
England knows its housing costs are unsustainable and has put its name on more than a dozen waiting lists for affordable housing or public housing. But she’s unlikely to see any progress on that front any time soon.
“If I was a younger person, I think I would be able to bounce back from all the struggles I have,” she told me. “I just never imagined myself being in this situation at the age I am now.”
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and polls, KHN is one of the three main operating programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.