Anxious seniors try to deal with tight budgets

Economic insecurity is upending the lives of millions of elderly people, as rising housing costs and inflation reduce the value of fixed income.

Across the country, the anxiety and distress of elderly people who until recently managed to manage tight budgets are growing. Some lost work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Others face unsustainable increases in rents and the prospect of losing their homes. Still others are traumatized by big posters at grocery stores.

Dozens of seniors struggling with these challenges – none of them poor by government standards – wrote to me after I viewed a file elderly indexwhich is a measure of the cost of aging, in a last column. The tool, developed by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Institute of Gerontology in Boston, indicates that 54% of older women who live alone have less income than is needed to pay basic expenses. For unmarried men, the rate is 45%.

To find out more, I spoke at length with three women who reached out to me and were willing to share very personal details about their lives. Their stories illustrate how unexpected circumstances – the pandemic and its economic impacts, natural disasters, domestic violence – can lead to unexpected fragility in later life, even for people who have worked hard for decades.

Betty Cohen

“After 33 years of living in my apartment, I’m going to have to move because the new owners of the building are renovating all the apartments and charging upwards of $1,800 to $2,500 per month that I can’t afford.”

Cohen, 79, has been distraught since she learned that the owners of her apartment complex in Towson, Maryland, are raising rents dramatically as they upgrade units. You pay $989 per month for a one-bedroom apartment with balcony. A similar, reconstructed apartment was recently put on the market for $1,900.

This is a national trend that affects all age groups: due to the response of landlords to high demand, this year the rent increase has reached 9.2%.

Cohen was told that her lease would be canceled at the end of January and that she would be charged $1,200 a month until it was time to renovate her apartment and vacate the building.

“Destruction I can’t tell you,” she said during a phone conversation. “Thirty-three years of living in one place lets you know that I am a very boring person, but I am also a very practical and stable person. I would never have thought in a million years that something like this would happen to me.”

During his long career, Cohen worked as a department store risk manager and as an insurance agent. She retired in 2007. Today, her monthly income is $2,426: $1,851 from Social Security after payments for Medicare Part B coverage, $308 from an individual retirement account, and $267 from a small pension.

In addition to rent, Cohen estimates she spends $200 to $240 a month on food, $165 on phone and internet, $25 on Medicare Advantage premiums, $20 on dental care, $22 on gas, and $100 or more on things Incidents such as cleaning products and toiletries.

That doesn’t include non-routine expenses, like new partial dentures that Cohen needs (she guesses they’ll cost $1,200) or hearing devices she bought several years ago for $3,400, counting on a small savings account. If forced to relocate, Cohen estimates that relocation costs will exceed $1,000.

Cohen searched for apartments in her area, but many are in smaller buildings, without elevators, and not easily accessible to someone with severe arthritis, which she struggles with. One-bedroom units are rented for $1,200 and up, not including utilities, which may be an additional $200 or more. Waiting lists for senior housing first two years.

“I’m miserable,” Cohen told me. “I get up in the middle of the night a lot because my brain doesn’t stop working. Everything is so confusing.”

curry england

“Living alive has become very expensive. I’ve lost everything and been disrupted on a daily basis because I don’t know how I can continue to afford to live.”

England, 61, thought she had grown up in a three-bedroom house in Winchester, Virginia, which she said she bought with her partner in 1999. But that dream exploded in January 2021.

It was around this time that England learned to her astonishment that her name was not on the deed of the house in which she was living. She thought it was sorted out, and called a legal aid attorney, hoping to get the money back. Put it in the property. The lawyer told her that without proof of ownership, she had no leg to stand on.

England told me: “My nest was home. It was gone. It was my investment. Peace of mind.”

England’s story is complicated. She and her partner told me that they had their long romance in 2009, but that they continued to live together as friends. That changed during the pandemic, when he went out of business and suddenly England’s job as a caterer and hospitality specialist ended.

“His personality changed a lot, and I started experiencing emotional abuse,” she said.

In an effort to adjust, England enrolled on Medicaid and arranged eight sessions with a therapist who specialized in domestic violence. That ended in November 2021, and you haven’t been able to find another therapist since. “If I wasn’t so concerned about my housing situation, I think I could process all the things that happened and work on it,” she told me.

After leaving her home in early 2021, England moved to Ashburn, Virginia, where she rented an apartment for $1,511 a month. (I thought, wrongly, that she would be eligible for help from Loudoun County.) With utilities and trash removal included, the monthly total exceeds $1,700.

On an income of around $2,000 a month, which she strives to maintain by getting temporary work whenever she can, England has less than $300 for everything else. She has no savings. “I don’t have a life. I don’t do anything but try to find work, go to work and go home,” she said.

England knows its housing costs are unaffordable and has put its name on more than a dozen waiting lists for affordable housing or public housing. But there is little chance that you will see progress on this front any time soon.

“If I were younger, I think I would be able to recover from all my hardships,” she told me. “I never expected to be in this position at the age that I am.”

Eileen Ross

“Help! I just turned 65 [am] Handicapped on disability. My husband is on Social Security and we can’t even buy groceries. This was not what I had in mind in the golden years.”

When asked about her problems, the 65-year-old spoke of a tornado that swept through central Florida on Groundhog Day in 2007, destroying her home. In hindsight, she learned that her insurance coverage was insufficient and would not replace most of her belongings.

To make ends meet, Ross began working two jobs: a hairdresser and a customer service representative in a convenience store. With her new husband, Douglas Ross, a mechanic, she bought a new home. Recovery seemed possible.

After that, Eileen Ross fell twice over the course of several years, breaking her leg, and ended up having three hip replacements. In an effort to manage her diabetes and struggle with pain, Ross quit work in 2016 and applied for Social Security disability insurance, which now pays her $919 a month.

She does not have a pension. Douglas quit his job in 2019, and is no longer able to handle the demands of his job due to his bad back. He also does not have a pension. With Douglas’ Social Security payment of $1,051 a month, the couple lives on just over $23,600 a year. Their meager savings evaporated with various emergency expenses, and they sold their homes.

Their rent in Empire, Alabama, where they live now, is $540 a month. Other regular expenses include $200 a month for their truck and gas, $340 for Medicare Part B premiums, $200 for electricity, $100 for medication, $70 for a phone, and hundreds of dollars — Ross did not provide an exact estimate — for food.

“All this inflation is just killing us,” she said. Nationally, food prices consumed at home are expected to rise 10% to 11% this year, according to the USDA.

To cut costs, Ross has turned off her air conditioner during peak hours for electricity prices, from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., despite summer temperatures in the 90s or higher. “I sweat like a bullet and try to wear as little clothing as possible,” she said.

“It’s horrific,” she continued. “I know I’m not the only old person in this situation, but it hurts me that I’ve lived my whole life doing all the right things in the situation I’m in.”

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Kaiser Health NewsThis article was reprinted from Courtesy of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy research organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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