Seniors Seek State Help to Weather Recession

Home-delivered meals, transportation and job training are among the services increasingly requested by low-income seniors as they struggle to cope with shrunken pensions, job shortages and rising food costs.

But a national survey of state services this month shows that despite an 85 percent spike in demand, revenue shortfalls are forcing states to lay off social services staff and slash administrative costs to forestall program cuts expected next year. Making matters worse, fewer people are volunteering to help seniors and many non-profit organizations hard hit by the financial crisis are shutting their doors, according to the report, " The Economic Crisis and Its Impact on State Aging Programs " by the National Association of State Units on Aging (NASUA). .

As a result of the cutbacks, fewer meals will be served, co-payments will be required and transportation and other services for seniors will be curtailed, state administrators reported. Already, at least 42 states have waiting lists for home-delivered meals and some states are delivering meals once a week, instead of daily.

The research, based on information gathered from 44 states and the District of Columbia, will be sent to Congress this month in an effort to get more federal money under next year's economic stimulus package for programs designed to help poor elders live on their own.

"States are trying really hard not to affect direct services for seniors, but because this is the third or fourth year they've had to make cuts, there are no simple fixes," Martha Roherty, Executive Director NASUA, told Stateline.org .
"We're just in the very beginning of this crisis," she said. States will be hit hardest the year after the recession ends, she said, because Medicaid claims will rise and unemployment will lag.

"A lot of people will go into Medicaid-funded institutions for the first time simply because they will not be able to get the meals, homemaker services, respite care, personal care and heating assistance they need to live on their own," Roherty said. The long-term care cost for each elder who enters a nursing home is nearly double what it costs states to provide home and community-based services.

Like the younger population, seniors have been directly affected by job losses, home foreclosures and the financial meltdown this year. But in some cases, elders are hurt by the financial problems of the children, friends and neighbors who care for them. With less money in family budgets and higher food and fuel prices, the added strain of caring for elders sometimes becomes too much, said Irene Collins, director of Alabama's Department of Senior Services.

In other cases, seniors live far from family and friends and have no one to care for them, Collins said. "Isolated seniors who can no longer pay their bills they way they always have, often suffer from depression."

Another problem for seniors in this recession is home foreclosures. More than 700,000 people over age 65 lost their homes or declared bankruptcy in 2008, according to a recent survey by AARP, which advocates for older Americans.

And while many expected to retire by age 65, six in 10 workers said they planned to postpone retirement, according to a 2008 AARP survey. Now, with shrinking pensions and rising food costs, even more elders are looking for work, David Certner, legislative policy director for AARP, told Stateline.org.

"There are who knows how many seniors with nest eggs that were just fine until all of a sudden they weren't fine anymore," said Jon Peck, communications director at the Florida Department of Elder Affairs . That's when they started coming to local agencies for services that they were able to pay for on their own before the financial crisis hit, Peck said.

In Oregon, Elaine Young, a manager at the Department of Health and Human Services said the state has seen a surge in seniors seeking employment training. "We're talking to people who had retired, but with the downturn they realized they needed to go back to work and they didn't have the necessary computer skills," she said.

State-run job training programs funded by the Older Americans Act pay seniors 20 hours per week for community service while they learn skills needed to land a full-time job. In general, seniors have a harder time finding work, and they often need to learn new skills, Young said.

NASUA plans to ask Congress this month for funding hikes for Older Americans Act programs, such as job training, nutrition, family caregiver support, disease prevention, and programs to prevent elder abuse and neglect; and Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program for the poor.

In addition, states are seeking increased funding to help seniors pay their utility bills. NASUA also will ask for more funding for Social Services Block Grants that states use to pay for community services for the elderly, such as income management, housing and health and nutrition services.

"Many of states' requests already are written into the stimulus package that's on the table. They are virtually guaranteed of approval. It's a matter of how much," AARP's Certner said.