Norena Pierce is worried about staying warm this winter.
The 79-year-old Augusta woman was one of thousands of local seniors to apply for assistance with her energy bills last week through the CSRA Economic Opportunity Authority Inc. Pierce said she can’t afford to use her furnace to heat her home without the assistance.
“This is very important to me because I have arthritis, and it’s very painful because it’s started getting chilly,” Pierce said. “I won’t have to shower in almost cold water trying to keep my heat turned down. I can turn it up to do the things I need to do.”
During the nation’s economic troubles, seniors have been hit hard.
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 13 percent of the 98,477 people age 60 and older were living in poverty in the Augusta metro area in 2010. Of this population, 8.8 percent were receiving food stamp/SNAP benefits, up from 7.6 percent in 2009.
Waiting lists for services such as Meals on Wheels, transportation, caregiver support and personal support, such as light housekeeping and services to help seniors remain in their homes, have increased significantly, said Jeanette Cummings, director for the Area Agency on Aging, a division of the CSRA Regional Commission.
“It has truly impacted seniors in higher numbers,” Cummings said. “People who usually are not people who call for help, because of the economy, they are calling for help. You’re paying more for everything, so when you’re on a fixed income then that is more of an impact.”
Overall, the senior population is receiving less assistance from their families, who are dealing with their own economic struggles from job losses. Some seniors can no longer afford their taxes and utilities. Based on a September study by the AARP Public Policy Institute, housing costs are becoming more burdensome for older adults, and those who rent or own with mortgages are at greater risk of affordability challenges than those who own their homes debt-free. The percentage of older homeowners who own their homes with no debt has dropped, and the percentage who are still paying mortgages after age 50 increased.
The increase of mortgage debt for seniors is probably because they “purchased more expensive homes than in the past,” a trend that developed in the last 10 years, said Bill Boatman, executive vice president of Meybohm Realtors.
“We went through a period of time in the early 2000s up to 2007 where the trend was to buy higher price homes. The real estate market was very, very good. Interest rates were very favorable during that period of time, so a lot of people actually bought higher priced homes. A lot of people made moves, where in the past they might have had more of a tendency to stay put in their paid for home,” he said.
Many seniors are trying to find part-time jobs to make ends meet, and those still in the workforce are pushing back their retirement dates to rebuild their 401(k)s, Cummings said.
The economy isn’t only affecting seniors’ wallets – it’s impacting their health, she said.
“They don’t have access to a lot of the fruits and vegetables. Just to make their budget work, they’re buying what we would call poorer quality food, high sodium and starches,” Cummings said.
Whether to keep medical appointments because of co-pays and other costs is also now part of the equation. Even if they go to the doctor, some don’t fill their prescriptions, not realizing they might qualify for prescription drug assistance, she said.
“We see that chronic conditions are getting worse, which is putting more demands on admissions to the hospital,” Cummings said.
Many seniors were already making some of these choices before the economic downturn, but their overall needs have intensified, said Gloria Lewis, executive director of the CSRA Economic Opportunity Authority Inc. She estimates that nearly 8,400 local seniors need some form of assistance, an increase from past years.
“We have a great need, but we don’t have the funding to work with all of them, so we work with the few that we can,” Lewis said.
Waiting lists for home and community-based services in Georgia are longer because more seniors are in need, but the dollars are not there, Cummings said. Services for seniors and children have not been cut to the extent of other services, but she said that “we are in a critical place that we’ve never been.” During the upcoming legislative session, the governor has asked all agencies to cut their budgets.
Kathryn Fowler, executive director of the Georgia Council on Aging, said that waiting lists for both Medicaid and non-Medicaid home and community based services have grown dramatically in Georgia.
“For non-Medicaid services, the statewide waiting list has grown from about 16,000 to over 20,000. Of course, you do have the phenomenon that people quit trying to get on the waiting list when they see it get that big, so we suspect that the need is much greater than what the lists are telling us they are.”
Kathy Floyd, legislative director with Georgia AARP, said that waiting lists for non-Medicaid home and community based services grew in the last three years with the recession. Before the recession, the waiting lists had only 3,000 to 4,000 total people. In June, there were 20,369 people on these waiting lists, but this is still “artificially low because some counties are discouraging people from even signing up,” she said.
Roberta Dixon, of Augusta, signed up for energy assistance at the H.H. Brigham Senior Center last week. The 79-year-old relies on Social Security and signed up for the program last year.
Because prices have increased, Dixon said that she wouldn’t be able to afford to heat her home.
“I don’t know what I’d do, with rent, water, lights and gas bills. I am on a budget,” Dixon said. “When you pay these bills, you hardly have anything left, if any. It depends on how the other bills run. I just get by the best way I can.”