The Cost of Aging

by Albert B. Kelly, Mayor, City of Bridgeton

Recently I came across an article by Judith Graham for Kaiser Health News discussing how so many seniors find it increasingly difficult to live independently affording basic necessities. The article featured a retired teacher who gets $925 a month from Social Security, $287 from an IRA, and another $400 from a reverse mortgage. This comes out to roughly $1,612 a month or $19,344 per year. Compared to the federal poverty line of $13,590, some might assume there’s not much of a problem. But that’s a tight budget.

I cannot imagine what life was like prior to Social Security, which started under President Franklin D. Roosevelt 87 years ago this month. Prior to that time, there was nothing for those who reached some sort of retirement age. Of course the life expectancy in this country back then was roughly 59 years for men and 63 years for women. Today life expectancy is nearly 80 years.

The article I was reading features an “elder index” (elderindex.org/) developed by Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

This index is supposed to help measure what level of income is needed by adults, age 65 or older, whether individually or as a couple, to live independently in their communities. We’re not talking about living lavishly, we’re simply talking about living securely and independently. The real wild card in the index, as it is in life, is health.

For so many of us, as we approach late middle age and head into old age our health becomes the biggest and most pressing factor for us. Many seniors would like to continue working but their health does not permit them to do so. Good health is the difference between living on a fixed income and potentially higher earnings through work.

Regardless, health-related expenses chew up a large portion of an older person’s budget in the form of co-pays, medications that are not covered by insurance, and the dozens of over-the-counter “incidentals” that are needed to have some quality of life.

To put the index into some local perspective, in Bridgeton, we have approximately 2,102 people over the age of 65. In Cumberland County, the number of adults over 65 is estimated to be 24,426. What does the index say about our area?

Based on county-level data, if you’re a single adult in reasonably good health and you rent in Cumberland County, you would need $2,450 a month to basically get by. This is an annual income of $29,400 per year which, believe it or not, is slightly more than the $27,096 that constitutes the national average for a single adult renter in good health. Conversely, if you are a single renter over 65 in this county in poor health, the income you need to get by according to the index is $2,665 a month or $31,980 per year.

There is a saying that the third rail of American politics is Social Security; touch it and die. It is said that part of the reason that FDR insisted that workers contribute to Social Security throughout their working lives, rather than simply making the program a straight entitlement, was precisely to avoid a scenario where some future politician tried to paint it as a handout or a giveaway.

If the index is accurate, all adults—but especially those in the third and fourth quarter of life—should insist that those we elect at the national level, regardless of party, do what is necessary to fund Social Security, and to do so at a level that lets those over 65 live reasonably independent lives.

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