Frowning George on a weak dollar
(Credit: Chuck Savage / Getty Images)

Aging in America is difficult for some older adults, who can face an array of challenges that include housing, healthcare and food insecurity, along with outdated policies that contribute to increasing poverty rates, according to experts speaking Thursday. For senior living providers, those challenges can prevent older adults from moving into their communities.

The Elder Index, an online tool, can provide policymakers, researchers and everyday people with a better understanding of the true cost of aging in America, experts from the National Council on Aging Equity in Aging Collaborative and the University of Boston at Massachusetts said in a briefing highlighting the tool. That improved understanding ultimately could enable older adults to live in the setting of their choice.

“Aging well in America should be a right, not a privilege for just some,” NCOA President and CEO Ramsey Alwin said.

Grantmakers in Aging CEO Lindsay Goldman issued a call to action to policymakers and others to work toward strengthening policies and programs for aging adults to allow them to age with dignity in the location of their choosing.

Older adults “have so much to offer our communities in later life,” Goldman said, adding, however, that challenges related to housing, food and poverty can prevent people from reaching their full potential.

The Elder Index, she said, can create a better understanding of who is falling through the cracks across a wide range of issue areas. As lawmakers are called on to develop policies and programs and determine associated funding levels — including reauthorization of the Older Americans Act — they can use the Elder Index to understand the number and demographics of people who will be affected, Goldman said.

Revising Social Security

The average Social Security benefit does not cover the true cost of aging anywhere in the United States, said Jan Mutchler, director of the Gerontology Institute at UMass Boston. 

“No matter where you live, you need more than SSI to cover the cost of living,” Mutchler said.

As evidence, several experts at the briefing pointed to recent data showing increasing rates of poverty among older adults. Those figures could prevent a significant number of older adults from accessing senior living options in the future.

“Far more older adults and families are living in a very precarious financial situation — more than is commonly understood,” Mutchler said. 

William Arnone, CEO of the National Academy of Social Insurance, and Rebecca Vallas, a senior fellow of the Century Foundation, called rising poverty rates among older adults a “disturbing trend.”

Vallas said that SSI, which serves approximately 8 million people, including 2.3 million older adults, is a “critical” program that has been “left to wither on the vine” almost since its inception in 1972. Key elements of the program have not been updated, including an asset limit that is still $2,000 for individuals and $3,000 for couples, she said. 

“It’s a cruel and rigid limit,” Vallas said, adding that if they had been updated for inflation, the limits now would be more than $10,000 for individuals and $16,000 for couples. Those asset levels, she said, trap people in a place “where dignity is out of reach,” preventing even basic emergency savings.

In an effort to remedy that, last week the SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act was introduced in both the House and Senate; it would update asset limits to $10,000 for individuals and $20,000 for couples. It also would index those asset levels to inflation moving forward.

Large employers, banks, the AARP and the US Chamber of Commerce have thrown their support behind the bill. Arnone said that banks, in particular, said it is difficult to be an employer or bank of choice for older adults and people with disabilities under the current SSI asset limits. 

“Federal policy shouldn’t punish people for saving responsibly,” Vallas said.