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April 2, 2001
Hidden Hunger
The golden years can be a time of suffering for many seniors
By Leah Shafer

illustration: Carrie Cox

At America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest private hunger relief organization, stories come in all the time about seniors who just aren't getting enough to eat. Dolores is a good example. A major illness wiped out her savings and she found herself without enough money for food. Likewise, Ruth and George's fixed income was just carrying them month to month, covering basic life expenses and multiple medications. When the roof started sagging and leaking, they had to sell some of their furniture to keep their pantry from going bare.

Although Social Security is credited with dramatic cuts in senior poverty since the 1960s, requests for food assistance by seniors have risen in the past year. Today almost one in five Americans over 65 years old live at or below the poverty level. That puts them at significant risk for hunger, a demoralizing and dangerous state that compromises health and happiness.

Worry on their plates

Researchers estimate that 5 million seniors have "food insecurity" -- that is, they don't get enough to eat and often don't know where the next meal is coming from -- which can lead to poor nutrition. A number of factors make people over 65 especially vulnerable to hunger. Many live on a fixed income from Social Security or pension plans. But the cost of living, including rent and prescription drugs, keeps growing -- and an unexpected expense, like a broken car or major illness, can strain that budget to the breaking point.

"If something goes wrong on a fixed income, something has to give," explains Doug O'Brien, director of public policy and research at America's Second Harvest. "Food is the one part of an older person's budget that is more flexible -- utilities and mortgage payments are not."

The biggest risk factors for hunger among the elderly include being female, poor, African American or Hispanic, or having fewer than 12 years of education. Other factors include physical disabilities, poor health, isolation, mood disorders (like depression), alcohol abuse, the use of multiple medications, and being over 80 years old.

Hunger also seems to vary depending on geography. A quarter of seniors in Louisiana, Ruth and George's home state, are living in poverty -- the second highest rate in the United States. Eight other Southern states have very high poverty rates as well.

Health-related expenses grow as people age, and these costs can strain pocketbooks. "There is a breakdown in health that invariably happens to everyone," O'Brien says. Nearly 2 million seniors must choose between buying medicine and buying food. Among low-income seniors, insufficient nutrition leads to disproportionate health costs unrelated to the aging process.

Hunger and illness

Hunger, which limits the body's nutrient and energy supplies, exacerbates existing heath conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension. It also can increase the risk for other conditions, like stroke. In addition, hunger actually may change the brain's chemistry, increasing mood disorders. Poor nutrition also limits the efficacy of certain medications.

"There is a growing body of medical evidence that suggests that hunger hastens degenerative diseases seniors may already have and lessens their ability to heal," O'Brien says.

Hunger starts a cycle that can be hard to stop: Without proper nutrition, many seniors become ill or have their chronic conditions worsen, causing a pileup of expenses from doctor's visits and medication. These added expenses make it less likely that they will have enough money for a good meal.

Assistance programs

Many of the 1 million seniors who have skipped meals because there is no food in the house rely on food stamps and community-based meal programs, like Meals on Wheels, to supplement what they keep in their kitchen. Faith-based organizations such as food pantries and soup kitchens are also of great importance, and seniors are turning to them more and more.

Federally, the cornerstone of food assistance programs is food stamps, which are coupons or plastic cards that can be redeemed at most grocery stores for food. Low-income seniors are often eligible for an average benefit of about $73 per month. Unfortunately, only a fraction of those who are eligible for food stamps actually receive them. This is largely due to the complexity of the application and interview processes, the belief that there are others in greater need of help, and the stigma of food stamps as "welfare." A quick call to the food stamp office, located in the blue pages in the front of the phone book under "food stamps" or "health and human services," will put seniors in contact with a caseworker who can help them determine if food stamps are a viable option. Senior centers also have information about other relief agencies and programs.

However, seniors are more likely to seek help from community-based programs than from federal assistance programs, O'Brien says. One such program, Meals on Wheels, accounted for a major portion of the almost 3 million people served in 1997, the most recent year for which data is available. Seniors who participate in sponsored meal programs have a more nutritious diet and more social contact than those who do not, says Jean Lloyd, a nutritionist with the Administration on Aging, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that administers many food programs for seniors. "This program is about service to the whole person -- social, physical, and cognitive elements," Lloyd explains. "We promote health, we provide meals, we reduce social isolation, and we can link seniors with other services they need."

What can be done to help?

It's terrible to think that the older couple across the street or an elderly relative might be skipping meals because of cost, but the reality is that the United States has a problem with senior hunger, O'Brien says. Everyone deserves reliable food sources -- for seniors to have them, both federal and community assistance programs must change.

"Benefits need to increase in government programs, which have been basically funded at the same level for 20 years," O'Brien says. "Outreach needs to grow significantly to low-income people to let them know what's available." Seniors need to be informed that there's a church in their community that's offering a bag of groceries and or a meal site serving food on Saturdays.

Very soon, the existing safety net will be overloaded. In the next decade the first wave of baby boomers will hit 65 and become eligible for benefits, causing the number of seniors to swell considerably. By 2050, there will be 79 million seniors and they will require better help, like assistance with the food stamp application process, better access to educational nutrition materials, and dieticians to advise them.

"Significantly mitigating poverty and hunger is not just about throwing money at the programs, but about making them work," O'Brien says. "Eliminating senior hunger can be done."

Related links:

Outside link: America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest domestic hunger relief organization

Outside link: Information on the issues surrounding the aging population from the Administration on Aging

Outside link: Meals on Wheels Association of America

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