News Archive

E-News Exclusive

Economy Forces Tough Choices for Elders
By Tracy Meadowcroft

Discount retailer Wal-Mart has aired a commercial in which an older adult finds his adult daughter dividing his pills into daily doses. He tells her she doesn’t need to do that, but she assures him there is enough medication for every day. “How can I afford that?” he questions, clearly concerned about the cost of a 90-day supply of his medication. She smiles, telling him it cost only $10.

Cutting back on medications or eliminating them completely is only one measure numerous older adults have taken to save money in the wake of the current economic crisis that officially has the country in a recession. Not every older adult has a cushy pension or 401(k) from which to draw funds, and monthly checks from Social Security can’t always cover an elder’s expenses.

Over the past several months, news reports have told the stories of older adults struggling through these difficult times. In addition to cutting back or cutting out medications—especially those elders who are caught in the so-called doughnut hole of Medicare prescription coverage—some have stopped driving, except to go to the grocery store or church.

And even at the grocery store, many older adults are cutting back on what they buy, limiting or eliminating more expensive items, such as meat, to keep costs down. Some elders even resort to standing in line at food banks to get the basic food staples they need. Economic concerns have forced some older adults to move in with their adult children (or adult children to move in with their aging parents) to pool resources and save money.

Other elders, those who are still healthy enough, are reentering the workforce to acquire additional funds to cover increasing expenses. But the unemployment rate has continued to climb as the economy continues on its roller coaster ride.

“Everybody is clearly feeling the pinch. People are scaling back. They’re really talking about spending money on the core, most important expenditures (such as food and housing),” says Wendy Zenker, vice president of the benefits access group at the National Council on Aging. “Things that we at one time would have thought were mandatory, like prescription drug use, you see people starting to scale back on using their prescriptions. They’ll make them last 35 days instead of 30, or they’ll take a drug every other day. And in some instances, they’re cutting out a medicine altogether because food or rent is more immediate.”

“I think many of the seniors didn’t expect to live as long as they have … and so many of them retired in their 50s and early 60s and now are in their late 80s or 90s and trying to make those dollars last,” says Laurie Hamilton of Home Instead Senior Care in Harrisburg, PA.

“They’ve seen their savings take a big hit. Right now, the seniors don’t have the time, as younger people do, to recover,” she adds. “They can get in trouble very, very quickly. So it’s really important that there’s somebody who’s an advocate for [a] senior. It’s just not in their nature for that generation to ask for help, so because of that, they can get into dire straits pretty quickly if they aren’t willing to ask for help. But there’s a lot of help out there if they just ask.”

Helpful Resources and Suggestions
Zenker notes that one helpful resource for seniors is, a service of the National Council on Aging. At the time this article was written, the service had assisted more than 2.2 million older adults access nearly $7 million in annual benefits. The Web site offers information about approximately 1,500 federal, state, and private programs that assist elders in finding funds for which they may be eligible but of which they may be unaware.

Zenker notes that with the current state of the economy, there may be even more older adults in need of funds to assist with home heating bills, prescription medication costs, finding appropriate Medicare coverage for an individual or couple, transportation assistance, food stamps, and affordable housing.

Home Instead Senior Care and the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging suggest that caregivers ask the following questions to determine whether seniors have cut back too much on expenses and may be putting themselves in danger:

  1. Is the elder's home too warm in the summer and too cold in the winter?
  2. Is the lawn being mowed or is the sidewalk being cleared in inclement weather?
  3. Is the older adult complaining about being unable to afford medications?
  4. Are necessary home repairs being overlooked?
  5. Is there a shortage of food in the elder’s house?
  6. Is the older adult skipping doctor’s appointments?
  7. Is the elder staying home more and becoming isolated?
  8. Is the individual cutting out entertainment?
  9. Is the older adult eating out less?
  10. Has the individual canceled a vacation?

Home Instead Senior Care and various senior and financial experts also offer the following tips for older adult clients to save money:

  • Seek help from an objective financial planner.
  • Get a second opinion about investments and financial purchases.
  • Contact the local Area Agency on Aging if there’s difficulty paying for necessities such as food and gas.
  • Start gardening, if possible, to help control the cost of food.
  • Avoid convenience foods that are more expensive than fresh or canned items, such as fruits and vegetables.
  • Look for deals on generic medications.
  • Walk when possible to save money on gas but stay active and social.
  • Carpool when you can’t walk.
  • Keep drapes drawn during the heat of the day and limit the opening and closing of doors in the wintertime. Also, close off parts of your residence that aren’t being utilized on a regular basis.

— Tracy Meadowcroft is the senior production editor at Aging Well.