Why Are So Many Seniors Hungry?
Photo © Lindsay Benson Garrett/Meals on Wheels
Senior years are supposed to be "golden" years—a time when people who've worked hard their entire lives can enjoy retirement, travel, indulge in new hobbies, and play with grandchildren. Unfortunately, for many elders, senior years are hungry years.
A new Bread analysis, "Keeping the Dream Alive: Hunger by the Numbers among Older Americans," shows that from 2001 to 2011, the percentage of seniors experiencing hunger increased by an astonishing 88 percent. In 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, 2.8 million households with seniors experienced food insecurity. That same year, 3.9 million adults age 65 and older lived below the poverty line.
Why? In part, the Great Recession. Most people in this country felt the pinch of the U.S. economic downturn, but vulnerable populations, including seniors, have been especially affected. Also, seniors are less likely to ask for help than other groups—either because they don't know they're eligible for assistance, or because of the stigma around asking for it, they may not access feeding programs, such as Meals on Wheels, or federal nutrition programs, such as food stamps (SNAP).
In one of the stories in the Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning series on food stamps in America—"In Florida, a food-stamp recruiter deals with wrenching choices, focused on SNAP outreach to hungry seniors"— food stamp outreach worker Dillie Nerios bumps up against these issues in her work. The piece details one especially heartbreaking interaction between Nerios and a senior couple who lost their home and savings during the recession and are struggling to keep their heads above water, but still are hesitant to sign up for SNAP. Nerios tells them they've worked hard their entire lives, paid taxes that help fund safety net programs, and that there is no shame in asking for just a small amount of help so that they're able to afford food that will help keep them healthy and vibrant. Still, they hesitate. “It’s hard to accept,” the husband says.
While help may indeed be hard to accept, at a time when 30 percent of seniors who have worked their entire lives and contributed greatly to society now have to choose between feeding themselves or purchasing medication, something must change. We must work to strengthen programs that offer seniors assistance, and also erase the stigma that prevents them for asking for a helping hand, so that they can enjoy their golden years and not have to worry about putting food on the table.
Read more in Bread for the World's analysis "Keeping the Dream Alive: Hunger by the Numbers among Older Americans," and view the infographic "Food Insecurity: A Harsh Reality for Many Seniors."
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