How much do elders need to live in the community? How many people can afford to live independently without the help of government supports? In what parts of the country do large numbers of elders need help?
These are some of the questions researchers at UMass Boston wanted to know the answers to. So six years ago, in collaboration with Wider Opportunities for Women, they started calculating, on a geographically specific basis, the costs of housing, food, health care, and transportation which elders experience. The calculations were first done for individual states but last year a national Elder Index was calculated covering the whole country. Click here to view the report.
Nationally, single individuals need between $19,104 to $28,860/year depending on whether they rent or own their own home and if their health status is poor or excellent. Couples need between $29,448 and $39,204/year. The assumptions built into the calculation are that the individual is living modestly, has Medicare, has a supplemental health plan, and has no long-term care expenses. However, the report also found that costs vary dramatically around the country. For example, state-wide housing costs for an elder homeowner without a mortgage in West Virginia was $260/m compared to an elder homeowner with a mortgage in New Jersey with a state-wide cost of $1,871/m. When these costs are compared to average Social Security benefits in the same geographic area, we can see that some areas have high costs and higher average Social Security benefits while other areas have high costs but lower average benefits. The maps in the report show us where the discrepancy between income and costs are the greatest and therefore where elders will need the most help.
Of most concern is that nowhere in the country does the average Social Security benefit cover the cost of living modestly in the community. The gap must be filled with individual personal savings, pension income, or government supports. The implication for individuals, service providers, policy makers, and government officials is staggering. How will we provide for the increasingly large numbers of couples and individuals who will be growing older and living longer?
It is also important to note that the National Index (unlike the state specific indexes) does not calculate long-term care costs. When those are added to an elder’s expenses, it can more than double the amount of money needed monthly.
The report is just the beginning of tracking where the need will be the greatest. The Elder Index when combined with other data can also be used to identify what groups of people are most at risk and which expenses are most important to address in which areas. The Index is a tool that can be used to give us a much more realistic understanding of what older individuals and couples face today and what we can expect in the future. It is up to all of us to find and support the solutions if we are to keep people in the community and living independently and with dignity.
Ellen A. Bruce is the Director of the Gerontology Institute in the McCormack Graduate School of Global and Policy Studies at UMass Boston. She is a co-author of the National Elder Index Report with Professor Jan Mutchler and Alison Gottlieb. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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