Keeping low income seniors healthy

More than 14 percent of seniors in the U.S. live well below the federal poverty limit. Learn which programs are available to help.

  • Poverty has been shown to negatively affect health outcomes and overall well-being.
  • Approximately 4.7 million seniors live below the federal poverty limit of $11,756/year, with even more living below that.
  • National and state programs can provide assistance for healthcare and food.

[4 MIN READ]

Imagine one morning waking up and stumbling into the kitchen. You’re groggy and craving a cup of coffee. A toasted bagel or crisp bowl of cereal will give you the energy to tackle the day ahead.

But on this particular morning, similar to other mornings you’ve faced, there is no coffee, no cereal and no milk. In fact, you’re not sure where your next meal will come from. You’re feeling weaker by the day and wondering if you should visit the doctor because you’ve also noticed that you’re having some memory problems and you seem to be getting sick more often.

How can you maintain your health and well-being when you have limited access to healthy food, a safe house or dependable medical care?

For many seniors who live on a low income, hunger and the resulting health problems may seem insurmountable. How can you maintain your health and well-being when you have limited access to healthy food, a safe house or dependable medical care?

Seniors and poverty

Poverty is a widespread problem in our country, but seniors over the age of 65 make up one of the largest groups of Americans who are living at or below the poverty level.

U.S. Census data from 2017 showed that roughly 4.7 million seniors (or 9.2 percent of all seniors) lived below the federal poverty limit of $11,756/year. After factoring in the supplemental poverty measure (SPM) — which takes into account home ownership, taxes and out-of-pocket medical costs — that number jumped to 7.2 million, or 14.1 percent of U.S. seniors. 

The poverty rate climbs with age and is more prevalent among African American, Hispanic and female seniors.

Why it matters

Poverty affects more than just bank accounts — it has the power to impact health outcomes and overall well-being. Studies have shown that disadvantaged populations have worse health due to environmental exposures or poor health habits. Impoverished people are also the most affected by homelessness.

Serious diseases have also been linked to low income. A 2011 national health survey showed that families with an annual income of $35,000 or less were more likely to have:

  • Chronic arthritis
  • Vision problems
  • Severe dental problems or tooth loss
  • Diabetes
  • Ulcers
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Chronic bronchitis

While we can still make progress in providing more equitable care, there are some reliable resources available to seniors who need assistance. Read on to learn more about these programs and how they can help.

Resources for seniors with low income

Both national and state programs can help seniors with a wide range of services, from healthcare to food assistance. Many local cities and towns also have resources available through senior centers and community programs. See below for details and useful links.

National Council on Aging BenefitsCheckup.org

Learn about more than 2,500 senior benefit programs available across the U.S. through the National Council on Aging (NCOA) BenefitsCheckUp.org. Based on your zip code and income, the site provides information on local and national assistance programs for:

  • Medications
  • Healthcare providers
  • Food and nutrition
  • Income
  • Housing and utilities
  • Tax relief
  • Employment
  • Transportation
  • Education
  • Veteran benefits

NCOA also offers an EconomicCheckUp.org that provides resources for finding work and saving money.

Eldercare Locator

The U.S. Administration on Aging has a database of agencies that assist with disabilities, legal services and health insurance counseling. The Eldercare Locator can provide available local resources based on zip code.

Medicare, Medicaid and prescription drugs

Although health is a human right, healthcare remains a huge cost burden to people across America.

When most people think of healthcare for seniors, they think of Medicare. Available to adults age 65 and older (or disabled adults under 65), Medicare covers costs for preventive care, prescription drugs and doctor visits.

Medicare doesn’t always cover all healthcare needs and many use Medicaid, a state-run health insurance program, as a supplement. 

However, Medicare doesn’t always cover all healthcare needs and many use Medicaid, a state-run health insurance program, as a supplement. In fact, Medicaid covers more than 60 percent of nursing home residents in the U.S.

Seniors’ eligibility for Medicaid varies from state to state and more information is available through the NCOA. The NCOA’s MyMedicareMatters.org also provides detailed guides and cost estimators for different Medicare options.

Medicare Part D is the program that provides prescription drug coverage. For low-income individuals who also qualify for Medicaid, the Medicare Low Income Subsidy is also an option.

The NCOA has a detailed explainer on Medicare Part D and frequently asked questions about enrollment.

Learn more about the ABCDs of Medicare.

Supplemental security income (SSI)

Seniors with limited income can apply for supplemental security income (SSI), which provides some financial assistance based on a person’s income. As of 2017, the average monthly benefit was $542, with a maximum of $735 (individual) or $1,103 (married).

To apply for SSI, seniors must visit their local Social Security office or call 1-800-772-1213.

Food assistance programs

There are several food assistance programs available for seniors with low income, including:

  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – Once called the food stamp program, SNAP provides debit cards to buy healthy food at grocery stores.
  • Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) – This program, which is only available in certain states, provides healthy food packages.
  • Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP)SFMNP gives grants to states to distribute coupons for fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets.
  • Meals on WheelsMeals on Wheels operates more than 5,000 local programs across the U.S. that deliver healthy, nutritious meals to seniors exclusively.

Veterans’ benefits

Veterans and their family are eligible for many different benefits, including pensions, healthcare and housing assistance. More information on these benefits is available through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

When you’re not sure how you’ll get your next meal or afford that critical trip to the doctor’s office, it can be frightening. But there are resources available. 

Regional programs

In addition to the services we’ve already listed, seniors are often eligible for many other state-based programs, such as utility assistance, tax payment help, cell phone programs, housing and more.

Here is a list of various state benefits through the AARP Foundation database of state benefit guides.

Reach out if you or a loved one needs help

When you’re not sure how you’ll get your next meal or afford that critical trip to the doctor’s office, it can be frightening. But there are resources available.

No one has to face poverty alone. If you or a loved one is struggling under a fixed income, don’t hesitate to seek out resources that can help you.

Find a doctor

The Providence Health is a Human Right campaign aims to find solutions for those who are facing poverty or homelessness. Find a Providence doctor that can assist you using our provider directory. Or, you can search for a primary care doctor in your area.

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More than 14.1 percent of #seniors in the U.S. live well below the federal poverty limit. Learn about resources that can help seniors in need. #aging #veterans @psjh

Related resources

Malnutrition in older adults

Many seniors could be just one step away from homelessness

Aging parents – signs they could need help

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

 

About the Author

From how to identify and treat heart diseases to exercise tips to maintain an active lifestyle, the Providence Senior's Health team is committed to providing real-world advice that is hyper-relevant to helping those 65+ find ways stay young at heart

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