Study Shows Seniors Are Squeezed Between Higher Costs and Fixed Incomes

TRENTON – In just two short years, the cost of living for seniors on a fixed income in New Jersey has increased 8 percent, according to statistics released today by the New Jersey Foundation for Aging (NJFA).

According to the Trenton-based foundation, the cost of living for a single renter over the age of 65 was $25,941 in 2009. That same renter, living in the same one-bedroom apartment, saw her cost of living quickly climb to more than $2,000, to $27,960, by 2011.

Grace Egan, executive director of the NJFA, said seniors on fixed incomes have been plagued in recent years with rising expenses for housing, transportation and health care. Most concerning has been senior hunger.

“This is the population in New Jersey that can least afford the trend in rising expenses,” Egan said. “The result is a widening of the gap between household expenses and their income, our report shows.”

The NJFA develops an “Elder Index” that details how seniors are faring in the slow economy. The latest data shows that 250,000 seniors over the age of 65 in New Jersey – representing 25 percent of single and elderly couples living in the community – do not have the money to cover their basic costs. Sixty-four percent of this demographic is women.

These alarming statistics grew out of NJFA’s work initiated in 2009 with Wider Opportunities for Women, a national organization that builds pathways to economic independence for families, women and girls. The work also shows that 25 percent of New Jersey seniors rely solely on Social Security benefits; the average for a woman being $12,741. But average living expenses for a one-bedroom apartment in New Jersey has reached the $27,960 mark.

Food insecurity is a focus. If seniors participated in congregate nutrition programs, the USDA Farmers Market Coupon Program and SNAP (Food Stamps), NJFA conservatively estimates a senior could have an additional $600 to cover basic expenses.

“The NJFA is doing its part to address food insecurity, creating a new awareness about public benefits and linking local garden efforts to senior housing and health services,” said Roberto Muñiz, Chair of the NJFA Board of Trustees and President and CEO of The Francis Parker Memorial Home in Middlesex County.

Working with several partners, NJFA has seen a growth in senior enrollment in SNAP of more than 36,000 eligible seniors over the past three years. It is estimated that another 130,000 seniors are eligible as well so more work is needed.

“Addressing food insecurity through increasing enrollment in nutrition programs, connecting senior housing and health programs to community gardens and providing outreach to those seniors who are most isolated is important work,” Muñiz said.

To date, the NJFA has funded three community garden programs. The first was the Camden City Garden Club, which created a fresh food garden adjacent to the North Gate II Senior Housing Complex. An additional project was added this year in Trenton through Isles, a community development organization, to create a fresh food garden adjacent to a PACE senior health center. In Bergen County, a project was funded through the Pascack Valley Meals on Wheels Program to bring services to elders of the Ramapough Lenape Nation.

Founded in 1998, the NJFA is working to improve and expand the delivery of services statewide to senior citizens, helping ensure they can live independently in the community for as long as possible. The foundation supports worthy projects through its grant program – such as the urban gardens – that help fulfill the mission.

Public awareness is a key component. Throughout the year, the non-profit foundation conducts policy forums and research centered on issues related to healthy aging. These forums educate professionals who regularly work with seniors.

“More important than any one isolated service is the interplay and integration of the services in an effective combination to keep older adults as independent as possible and integrated in our communities for as long as possible,” Egan said.

Besides senior hunger, the foundation focuses on addressing key issues of concern for the elderly, access to community based services, caregiving, transportation, employment, and economic security including chronic illnesses effecting seniors, she noted.

Egan noted many of the services could not be provided without sponsor support, adding the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Johnson & Johnson, the Fannie and Morris Sklaw Foundation, the Silver Century Foundation and the Theresa and Thomas Berry Foundation are key donors.

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