‘It’s getting too expensive to live’: How anxious older adults try to cope

Economic insecurity is disrupting the lives of millions of older adults as rising housing costs and inflation erode the value of fixed incomes.

Across the country, seniors who until recently successfully managed limited budgets are becoming more anxious and distressed. Some have lost their jobs during the Covid-19 pandemic. Others are facing unbearable rent increases and the prospect of losing their homes. Still others are experiencing significant sticker shock at the grocery store.

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 costs of aging, in a recent column. The tool, developed by researchers at the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, suggests that 54% of older women who live alone have less income than they need to cover essential expenses. For unmarried men, the figure is 45%.

To find out more, I spoke to three women who reached out to me and were willing to share very personal details of their lives. Their stories illustrate how unexpected circumstances — epidemics and their economic impact, natural disasters and domestic abuse — can lead to unexpected uncertainty later in life, even for those who have worked hard for decades.

Betty Cohen

“After 33 years in my apartment, I have to move because the new owners of the building are renovating all the apartments and charging more than $1,800 to 2,500/month rent that I can’t afford.”

Cohen, 79, has been upset since learning that the owners of his Towson, Maryland, apartment complex were rapidly raising rents as they upgraded units. He pays $989 monthly for a one-bedroom apartment with a terrace A recently redone apartment went on the market for $1,900

Betty Cohen of Towson, Maryland, is worried about where she will live because her apartment complex is raising rents as units are upgraded. He pays $989 a month for his one-bedroom apartment with a terrace, but a similar apartment that has recently been redone is on the market for $1,900. “I never in a million years thought something like this would happen to me,” she says.(Betty Cohen)

It’s a national trend that affects all age groups: As landlords respond to higher demand, rent increases have reached 9.2% this year.

Cohen has been told her lease will be terminated at the end of January and she will be charged $1,200 per month until it is time to renovate her apartment and vacate the premises.

“Devastating, I can’t tell you,” he said during a phone conversation. “Living in one place for thirty-three years tells you that I’m a very boring person, but I’m also a very practical, stable person. I never in a million years thought something like this would happen to me.”

During a long career, Cohen worked as a department store risk manager and insurance agent. He retired in 2007. Today, his monthly income is $2,426: $1,851 from Social Security after paying for Medicare Part B coverage, $308 from a separate retirement account and $267 from a small pension.

Besides rent, Cohen estimates she spends $200 to $240 per month on food, $165 on phone and Internet, $25 on Medicare Advantage premiums, $20 on dental care, $22 on gas, and $100 or more on incidentals such as cleaning products and toiletries. spent .

That doesn’t include non-routine expenses, such as new partial dentures that Cohen needs (he estimates they will cost $1,200) or hearing aids he bought several years ago for $3,400, drawing on a small savings account. If forced to relocate, Cohen estimates moving costs will exceed $1,000.

Cohen looked for apartments in her area, but many were in small buildings, without elevators and not easily accessible to someone with severe arthritis, which she has. One-bedroom units are renting for $1,200 or more, not including utilities, which can be an additional $200 or more. The waiting list for senior housing tops two years.

“I’m sad,” Cohen told me. “I wake up in the middle of the night a lot because my brain won’t shut off. Everything is so overwhelming.”

Carrie England

“It is becoming very expensive to survive. I’ve lost everything and am broke every day because I don’t know how I can live with the cost of living.”

England, 61, thought she would grow old in a three-bedroom house in Winchester, Virginia, which she said she bought with her partner in 1999. But that dream exploded in January 2021.

At that time, England surprised him to learn that his name was not on the house he lived in She thought it was arranged, and contacted a legal aid lawyer, hoping to recover the money. Keep on property. Without proof of ownership, the lawyer told him, he didn’t have a leg to stand on.

“My house was home. It’s gone. It was my investment. My peace of mind,” England told me.

England’s story is complicated. She and her partner ended their longtime romantic relationship in 2009 but continue to live together as friends, she told me. That changed during the pandemic, when he stopped working and England’s work as a caterer and hospitality specialist came to an abrupt end.

“His personality changed a lot,” she said, and “I started experiencing emotional abuse.”

Trying to cope, England enrolled in Medicaid and arranged eight sessions with a therapist specializing in domestic abuse. They ended in November 2021 and she hasn’t found another therapist since. “If I hadn’t been so worried about my housing situation, I think I could have processed and worked through everything that happened,” she told me.

After moving out of her home in early 2021, England moved to Ashburn, Virginia, where she rented an apartment for $1,511 a month. (He thought, incorrectly, that he would be eligible for assistance from Loudoun County.) Including utilities and trash removal, the monthly total exceeded $1,700.

On an income of about $2,000 a month, which he scrambles to maintain by picking up gig work whenever he can, England has less than $300 for everything else. He has no savings. “I have no life. I do nothing but try to find work, go to work and go 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 it’s unlikely he’ll see progress on that front anytime soon.

“If I was a younger person, I think I would have been able to recover from all the difficulties I’m in,” he told me. “At the age I’m at now, I could never put myself in this situation.”

Ellen Ross

“Help! I’m just 65 and [am] Disability on Disability. My husband is on social security and we can’t even afford groceries. I didn’t have it in mind for the golden years.”

When asked about his ordeal, Ross, 65, talks about a tornado that swept through central Florida on Groundhog Day in 2007 and destroyed his home. Too late, he learned that his insurance coverage was inadequate and would not replace most of his belongings.

To make ends meet, Ross started working two jobs: as a hairdresser and as a customer service representative at a convenience store. With her new husband Douglas Ross, a machinist, she bought a new house. Recovery seemed possible.

One photo shows Elaine Ross standing next to a picnic table with her son Skyler Kern and his wife Sydney Kern.  A sliced ​​watermelon lies on the table.
Elaine Ross (center), with son Skyler Kern (right) and his wife Sydney Kern. Ross, who lives in Empire, Alabama, said inflation is “just killing us.” To cut costs, she turns off her air conditioner from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. “It hurts me,” she says.(Douglas Ross)

Then, Elaine Ross fell twice over several years, broke her leg and had three hip replacements. Struggling to manage diabetes and in pain, Ross quit work in 2016 and applied for Social Security disability insurance, which now pays him $919 a month.

He has no pension. Douglas stopped working in 2019, unable to cope with the demands of his job due to a bad back. He also has no pension. With Douglas’ Social Security payments of $1,051 a month, the couple lives on just $23,600 a year. Their meager savings evaporate with various emergency expenses and they sell their homes.

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 electricity, $100 for medicine, $70 for phone, and hundreds of dollars — Ross did not offer a precise estimate — for food.

“All this inflation, it’s killing us,” he said. Nationally, home-cooked food prices are expected to rise 10% to 11% this year, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

To cut costs, despite summer temperatures in the 90s or higher, for electricity rates, from 1 a.m. to 7 p.m., Ross is turning off his air conditioning. “I sweat like a bullet and try to wear minimal clothing,” she said.

“It’s horrible,” he continued. “I know I’m not the only old person in this situation, but it hurts me that I’ve lived my whole life right to be in the situation I’m in.”

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