(TNS)– Economic insecurity is upending the lives of millions of older adults as soaring housing costs and inflation diminish the value of fixed incomes.
Senior citizens across the country who have managed to manage limited budgets up until recently are feeling more anxious and stressed. Some lost their jobs due to the covid-19 epidemic. Others are facing unaffordable rental increases and the possibility of losing homes. Others are still experiencing sticker shock at grocery shops.
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. That tool, developed by researchers at the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, suggests that 54% of older women who live alone have incomes below what’s needed to pay for essential expenses. For single men, it is 45%.
To find out more, I spoke to three women who were open to sharing their personal lives. Their stories illustrate how unexpected circumstances — the pandemic and its economic aftereffects, natural disasters, and domestic abuse — can result in unanticipated precarity in later life, even for people who worked hard for decades.
“After 33 years living in my apartment, I will have to move since the new owners of the building are renovating all apartments and charging rents of over $1,800 to $2,500/month which I cannot afford.”
Cohen, 79, is upset that her Towson apartment complex owners are increasing rents as they upgrade units. She pays $989 per month for a one-bedroom apartment that has a terrace. A similar apartment, which was recently renovated, is now on the market for $1900.
This is a national trend that affects all age groups: Rent increases this year reached 9.2% as landlords respond high to demand.
Cohen has been told that her lease will be canceled at the end of January and that she’ll be charged $1,200 a month until it’s time for her apartment to be refurbished and for her to vacate the premises.
“The devastation, I cannot tell you,”She spoke during a telephone conversation. “Thirty-three years of living in one place lets you know I’m a very boring person, but I’m also a very practical, stable person. I never in a million years would have thought something like this would happen to me.”
Cohen worked for many years as a risk manager in department stores and as an agent in insurance. In 2007, she retired. Her monthly income today is $2,426. After Medicare Part B coverage payments, $1,851 comes from Social Security. $308 comes from an individual retirement account and $267 from small pensions.
Cohen estimates that she spends $200 to $240 per month on rent, $165 on phone, internet, and Medicare Advantage premiums, $20 for dental care, $22 on gas, $100 on cleaning products, and $100 on incidentals such as toiletries and cleaning products.
That doesn’t include non-routine expenses, such as new partial dentures that Cohen needs (she guesses they’ll cost $1,200) or hearing aids that she purchased several years ago for $3,400, drawing on a small savings account. Cohen estimates that moving costs could exceed $1,000 if she is forced to move.
Cohen looked for apartments in her neighborhood, but most are in smaller buildings without elevators and not easily accessible to someone with severe arthritis. One-bedroom apartments are available for rent at $1,200 and above, excluding utilities, which may be an additional $200. Two years are required to wait on senior housing.
“I’m miserable,” Cohen told me. “I’m waking up in the middle of the night a lot of times because my brain won’t shut off. Everything is so overwhelming.”
“It’s becoming too expensive to be alive. I’ve lost everything and break down on a daily basis because I do not know how I can continue to survive with the cost of living.”
England, 61, thought she’d grow old in a three-bedroom home in Winchester, Va., that she said she purchased with her partner in 1999. In January 2021, that dream became a reality. Around that time, England learned to her surprise that her name was not on the deed of the house she’d been living in. She had thought that had been arranged, and she contacted a legal aid lawyer, hoping to recover money she’d put into the property. Without proof of ownership, the lawyer told her, she didn’t have a leg to stand on.
“My nest was the house. It’s gone. It was my investment. My peace of mind,”England told me.
England’s story is complicated. She told me that she and her partner ended their long-lasting relationship in 2009, but they continued to live together as friends. That changed during the pandemic, when he stopped working and England’s work as a caterer and hospitality specialist abruptly ended.
“His personality changed a lot,”She said, “I started encountering emotional abuse.”
England, who was trying to cope, enrolled in Medicaid and arranged eight sessions with a therapist that specialized in domestic abuse. Those ended in November 2021, and she hasn’t been able to find another therapist since. “If I wasn’t so worried about my housing situation, I think I could process and work through all the things that have happened,”She told me.
England moved from her home in 2021 to Ashburn, Va. where she rents an apartment at $1,511 per mo. She thought she would be eligible for Loudoun County assistance, but she was wrong. The monthly cost of utilities and trash collection is more than $1,700.
England has less that $300 for everything with a monthly income around $2,000 and gig work. She has no savings. “I do not have a life. I don’t do anything other than try to find work, go to work, and go home,”She said.
England knows her housing costs cannot be sustained and has placed her name on more that a dozen waiting lists for housing affordable or public housing. But there’s little chance she’ll see progress on that front anytime soon.
“If I were a younger person, I think I would be able to rebound from all the difficulties I’m having,”She told me. “I just never foresaw myself being in this situation at the age I am now.”
“Please help! I just turned 65 and [am] disabled on disability. My husband is on Social Security and we cannot even afford to buy groceries. This is not what I had in mind for the golden years.”
Ross, 65, recalls the 2007 tornado that decimated her home in central Florida. Too late, she learned her insurance coverage wasn’t adequate and wouldn’t replace most of her belongings.
Ross worked two jobs to make ends met: she was a hairdresser, and she was a customer service representative at the convenience store. Douglas Ross, her new husband, was a machinist. She purchased a new house. It seemed possible to recover.
Elaine Ross was injured in a fall that she suffered over several years. She had to have three hip replacements. Ross, who was struggling with diabetes and pain, quit her job in 2016 to apply for Social Security Disability Insurance. She now receives $919 per month.
She doesn’t have a pension. Douglas quit working in 2019, unable to cope with the demands of his job due to a bad back. He, too, doesn’t have a pension. With Douglas’ Social Security payment of $1,051 a month, the couple live on just over $23,600 annually. They sold their home after their meager savings were destroyed by various emergencies.
Their rent in Empire (Ala.), where they currently live, is $540 per month. Other regular expenses include $200 a month for their truck and gas, $340 for Medicare Part B premiums, $200 for electricity, $100 for medications, $70 for phone, and hundreds of dollars — Ross didn’t offer a precise estimate — for food.
“All this inflation, it’s just killing us,”She said. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the national average price of food at home will rise between 10% and 11% this year.
Ross turned off her AC during peak hours to save money, which is between 1 and 7 p.m. in spite of summer temperatures that were in the 90s. “I sweat like a bullet and try to wear the least amount of clothes possible,”She said.
“It’s awful,”She continued. “I know I’m not the only old person in this situation, but it pains me that I lived my whole life doing all the right things to be in the situation I’m in.”
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