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Aging in the Inland Empire: African American Elders in Peril

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By Linnie Frank Bailey,
New America Media, News Report –

Melendez said the increased cases of elder self-neglect are one sign of widespread angst among seniors over the deteriorating economy and fear about what the future holds.

This fear of the future is aggravated by recent budget cuts in California affecting senior services and programs. Many elders are living a retirement a lot broker than they planned, and they don’t know where to turn for help. Melendez said her organization is one of many that try to help seniors find resources, however it is harder as programs are cut.

The California Budget – “Nothing to Celebrate”

After a protracted battle, California state legislators approved a state budget on July 24, 2009, to address the state’s $26 billion debt. The negotiated bipartisan budget cut billions of dollars from local governments, education and social services.

That included reductions in programs affecting low-income seniors, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), MediCal, In Home Support Services and Adult Day Health Centers.

Initially, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recommended eliminating many programs in his May budget. The legislature, though, decided to cut programs, some drastically, but not completely zero out vital programs.

Subsequently, the governor used his line-item veto authority to slash an additional $489 million in cuts.

The governor “blue-penciled” all state funding for Community Based Service Programs in 2009-10. Some the services now denied funds to operate are:

· Alzheimer’s Day Care Resource Centers, specialized daytime programs for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease or related dementias;

· The Brown Bag Program, which provided surplus and donated edible fruits, vegetables and other food to low income individuals ages 60 and older;

· Respite Purchase of Services, enabling caregivers for frail elders or functionally impaired adult to get relief time away from the constant stress of care;

· Senior Companion programs, in which older volunteers assist their impaired or terminally ill peers with a range of in-home assistance aimed at helping them remain at homes or in community settings (and out of institutions) for as long as possible.

After signing his revised $84.6 billion budget plan for the coming year, the governor stated, “These are ugly cuts” and “nothing to celebrate,” but, “we cannot afford the programs we used to be able to afford even two years ago.”

And he announced that he had increased the governor’s discretionary fund to a half-billion dollars—about the amount of his line item cuts—for use in future emergencies and did so without raising taxes.

“It starts with Downsizing”

You see them at the supermarket, lingering over the selections in the bread aisle, or going thorough the marked down items at the back of the store. At the register, they carefully count out change to pay for three to five items. Were you to follow them home you might find empty refrigerators and cupboards.

“It starts with downsizing,” Melendez said. “We are seeing seniors and their caregiver families look for less expensive housing options. Seniors in assisted living retirement communities are having to find less expensive housing options because they have lost savings. Some move from a two-bedroom to a one-bedroom, others are moving in with relatives and others are placed in nursing homes by family members.”

Seniors are being affected by the same economic perils facing all Americans. They have lost funds in the stock market and equity in their homes. Melendez observed, “The difference is elders don’t have the 10, 15 or 20 years it will take to rebuild their finances.”

She added, “This is causing great depression among those who thought they did everything right. They’re now looking closely at every expense and are cutting out all but the essentials. Depression is high among this age group.”

Some are suffering from too much credit card debt. A recent study shows credit card balances for low-and-middle income seniors soared by 26 percent in the past four years.

The report, by the policy group Demos, suggests that older adults, accustomed to cashing out home equity to pay bills, are finding themselves in the same predicament as younger borrowers because of falling real estate values, shrinking portfolios and rising energy costs.

With family members also strapped for cash, seniors are turning to credit to pay their bills as well as to relatives for help. Also, elders tend to have higher health care costs than younger borrowers. The Demos study says widening gaps between health care costs and insurance coverage are likely forcing some seniors to pay for medical expenses with credit cards. Maria Diaz knows many families who have used credit to pay the bills. She says people are barely holding on in her Riverside-area neighborhood, an enclave of working class Latino, African-American and white families. She sees families doubling up in small houses to make ends meet. Diaz, who shares a house with her mother, age 88, and a grown son, said budget cuts will take a toll on her family.

“Through In Home Supportive Services I pay a local woman to watch my mother, but she makes almost as much as I do, so much of my salary goes to her.”

She added, because of the new budget, her hourly rates are being cut and my mom’s SSI payments are shrinking. We all are struggling, but I know we have it better than some in this neighborhood.”

Riverside County, where Diaz lives, has the eighth-highest foreclosure rate in the United States. According to RealtyTrac, Riverside County is second in the state in foreclosure volume. One in 17 households is slipping into some stage of foreclosure during the first six months of the year. San Bernardino County was fourth, with one in 19 households in default.

According to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, foreclosures were far more common last year among black mortgage holders. The report states, “African American borrowers were 3.3 times as likely as white borrowers to be in foreclosure, whereas Latino and Asian borrowers were 2.5 and 1.6 times respectively more likely to be in foreclosure as white borrowers.”

Unemployment in both Riverside and San Bernardino Counties is near 13%. Among African-Americans and Latinos it is higher, by some estimates 17-19%. While younger seniors with jobs are putting off retirement, a number of adults 65-plus are trying to re-enter the tough labor market to help make ends meet.

Jackie Melendez believes the situation for seniors in the Inland area will continue to deteriorate, at least until the economy turns around. “These are people who never before needed help with housing, transportation, or food. Where will we send them?”

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