When Older Americans Month was established in 1963, only 17 million living Americans had reached their 65th birthday. A meeting in April 1963 between President John F. Kennedy and members of the National Council of Senior Citizens led to designating May as “Senior Citizens Month,” now known as “Older Americans Month.” Every President since Kennedy has issued a formal proclamation during or before the month of May asking that the entire nation pay tribute in some way to older adults in their communities.
Led by the Administration for Community Living (ACL) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), this year’s theme, Aging Unbound, offers us an opportunity to highlight important trends and strengthen our commitment to honoring our older adults. Hubert Humphrey, who served as U.S. Vice President from 1965-1969, said, “…the moral test of a government is how that government treats those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly.”
They See You, Do You See Them?
In 2020, there were 55.5 million adults aged 65 and older in the United States, which represented 17 percent of the population. Approximately, 13.5 million were members of racial and ethnic populations. Additionally, almost one percent identified as part of the LGBTQ+ community.
- They are our grandmas/grandpas, moms/dads, uncles/aunts, brothers/sisters.
- They are our librarians, kinship caregivers, doctors, teachers, firefighters, dentists, grocery store clerks, veterans.
- One in fifteen older adults are food insecure.
- Nearly one in ten (5 million) older adults live below the poverty level.
- One in four older adults experience depression, anxiety, and/or loneliness.
- The drug overdose death rates are increasing the fastest among those 65 and older.
Why Does This Matter for Homelessness?
According to ACL’s 2021 Profile of Older Americans, five million people aged 65 and older lived below the poverty level. At least 2.6 million older adults were classified as “near poor,” meaning their incomes were between the poverty level and 125 percent more than poverty level. Poverty affects older adults differently than other groups because they are more vulnerable to economic instability when their physical health, cognitive abilities, and social networks decline. Homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked: when economic instability increases, so does the risk of homelessness. Thus, older Americans living in poverty are at increased risk of becoming homeless or experiencing housing instability.
The aging population is growing: by 2040, there will be about 80.8 million older Americans, which will account for 22 percent, almost one-fourth, of the population. As the aging population grows so does their rate of homelessness. Moreover, projections based upon analysis of three major U.S. cities estimates that homelessness among older adults is expected to nearly triple in 2030. Additionally, the homeless population, overall, continues to get older.
Unlike housed older adults who tend to age in place, this population is aging into homelessness.
The root causes of homelessness among older adults are diverse. These can include community-level factors such as lack of accessible and affordable housing and limited safety net resources. They also may include individual risk factors, such as medical problems, health-related behaviors such as substance use disorders, social factors (e.g., social isolation, barriers to transportation), and financial insecurity. Key efforts to address homelessness among older adults not only include building and maintaining partnerships among the various sectors who engage with older adults, but it also demands the leveraging of public funding.
Older Adults Use of Safety Net Programs
While safety net programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicare/Medicaid, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are meant to provide support to economically disadvantaged people, a report from HHS found fewer older adults (17 percent) benefited from one of the 10 safety net programs. Additionally, among all people with income below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, 74 percent of people received a program benefit, while only 47 percent of older adults received a program benefit. Adults 65 years and older with any benefit were less likely than working‐age adults to participate in more than one of the 10 safety net programs reviewed.
As the nation acknowledges Older Americans Month, let’s address circumstances adversely impacting their lives. Not only should we recommit ourselves to supporting the unique needs of older adults, but we should also advocate for sufficient investments in federal housing assistance programs. (See bills and budget proposals below) Without it, homelessness among them will only continue to grow.
Expand outreach for safety net programs and ease onerous administrative burdens.
The average monthly SNAP benefit is $105 and can mean the difference between having food and going without. Yet, SNAP remains underused by many older adults, who share that they were unaware of the resource, or the application process is daunting. Thus, food insecurity has emerged as a critical health issue for older adults. The current proposal to raise the age for work requirements adds another access barrier.
- Improving Access to Nutrition Act of 2023 (H.R. 1510) amends the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 to repeal the work requirement that disqualifies able-bodied adults for eligibility to participate in the supplemental nutrition assistance program.
Prioritize the mental health needs of older adults.
Accessing behavioral health services is a critical need. Yet, the rate of psychiatrists who accept new patients is low and is even lower for older adult Medicare beneficiaries. If they live in rural areas, these rates are stark. Despite some emerging demonstrations, older adults who are dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid typically experience barriers to care due to inadequate coordination of behavioral health services between Medicare and Medicaid.
- The Homelessness Health Care and Coordination Act (H.R. 773) would make it easier for local homelessness systems to access behavioral health care services for people experiencing homelessness who have mental health or substance use problems.
Increase benefit levels of direct cash assistance.
The average monthly benefit for SSI in Feb. 2023 was approximately $554, with a maximum of $943. The average rent for an apartment in the U.S. is $1,702, which varies depending on several factors including location, size, and quality.
Invest in homeless assistance programs.
There are only 36 affordable rental housing units for every 100 Extremely Low-Income (ELI) renters. Older adults representing minority households are almost three times more likely to be ELI renters when compared to older White households. Only about one in four older adults receive housing assistance.
- Support $3.6 billion in overall funding for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Homeless Assistance Grants. This program helps to house and provide support services to our most vulnerable population.
- Advocate for increase in funding for Housing for the Elderly (Section 202), which helps to expand the supply of affordable housing with supportive services for older adults.
- Advocate for an increase in funding for Housing for People with Disabilities Program (Sec. 811), which supports the construction of affordable, accessible housing.