Massachusetts elders face worst “independence gap” in nation

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By Al Norman

March roared in like a lion with the release of a report by a national group called Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW), which found that seniors in Massachusetts face the largest gap in the nation between income and the cost of basic expenses. You might call this disparity the “independence gap” because it threatens older people’s ability to keep financially afloat.

The WOW report found that elders in the Commonwealth are coping with a $10,248 income shortfall, as measured by an “Elder Index” that measures the costs of basic expenses compared to seniors’ typical (median) income. But even worse — this gap is the biggest in the country — making Massachusetts the hardest place for seniors to make ends meet.

All of us who call Massachusetts home know that the cost of living is high. But this new report quantifies the disparity between what seniors have to live on, versus what it costs to live. Using their “Elder Index” yardstick, WOW and the Gerontology Institute at U Mass/Boston found that an elder living alone and renting an apartment needs an average of $27,048 a year to live independently.

In fairness, the study also found that there was no state where media income was equal to the basic cost of living for seniors. But our state happens to be the worst.

Donna Addkison, the CEO of WOW, told the media: “Growing old in Massachusetts is getting more and more expensive. Even though we may not be able to avoid getting older, we can’t afford it either. Working hard is no guarantee you’ll be able to cover your most basic expenses when you retire.”

The Elder Index looks at basic living needs, like housing, food, transportation and health care. It provides more insight than the one-dimensional “poverty level” data that the federal government releases. Simply put, the new data shows that seniors in Massachusetts have to struggle harder than their counterparts in the rest of the country to keep their heads above water.

According to Chet Jakubiak, the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of Older Americans (MAOA), who worked with WOW and U Mass/Boston on the new report, U.S. Census data shows that the median income among all households in Massachusetts dropped nearly 5 percent during 2010. But Jakubiak said elders likely saw an even greater income drop. Rising costs and falling income have led to a weakening of older residents’ economic security.

Jakubiak said the problems go even deeper. “Another contributing factor is the failure to develop a clear, comprehensive, administration-wide public policies or guidelines to respond to the untenable economic situation of the state’s elders,” Jakubiak said. “In short, prices are up, income is down, public benefits are slashed, and there is no public policy to address elders economic conditions. So here we are, worst in the nation.”

Today in Massachusetts, seniors account for nearly 20 percent of the population. They are the “lost 20 percent” of our demographic — because public officials have failed to create either a vision or an agenda to help these citizens remain independent.

As Jakubiak says: “Far too many elders live every day on the edge of economic disaster. That’s a disgrace.”

Al Norman is the Executive Director of Mass Home Care. He can be reached at 978-502-3794, or at info@masshomecare.org