by Don MacGillivray

At the April “People’s Forum” held at the Multicultural Center of Impact NW clients and advocates met to talk about the crisis that exists for seniors and adults with disabilities throughout Multnomah County. The realities of our aging members and the gaps in social services due to shrinking state and federal resources are troublesome especially to those requiring needed services. The challenges of many seniors are: financial, isolation, affordable housing, food scarcity, transportation needs, in-home services, and elder abuse. Any of these issues can lead to extreme and possibly life threatening problems for older adults when they are suffering from various health issues.

Eleven percent of the population in Multnomah County is older than sixty-four years of age. Twenty-three percent of the county’s disabled seniors live in poverty. The senior population in Multnomah County is expected to increase by fifty-seven percent within the next ten years and outpace the growth rate of the rest of Oregon and the United States. The highest growth will be in ethnic minorities and the poverty rate among seniors of color is nineteen percent, which is twice the rate of the overall senior population.

The funding for district centers in 2016-’17, for many important programs, was depleted in the first few months of this year. The district centers have had to reduce client services and cut staff or find funding from other sources. The funding for the current biennium is well below the allocation of the 2008-’09 fiscal year while the needs have increased.

A common reason for the poor financial situation of seniors is an inadequacy of their savings for retirement. A large number of Social Security recipients rely on it for half or their income and one third of these seniors rely on it for ninety percent of their income. Social Security benefits have lost thirty-four percent of their buying power since 2000. For many that worked in low paying jobs or depend on their deceased spouses social security their income is likely to be around $7,500 per year or less. A typical Social Security income for a low-income worker or spouse is $733 / month or only $8,796 per year. On this low income, the costs of housing can become 50-70% of a senior’s income so that food, transportation, medical, and other important needs become difficult or impossible to provide.

The federal Older Americans Act funds only part of the home delivered meals and transportation to medical appointments. Multnomah County has five district centers and several culturally specific partner organizations that provide services to older adults and disabled people. The five district centers in Portland are: Friendly House, Neighborhood House, the Hollywood Senior Center, the Urban League, Impact Northwest, and the Immigrant and Refugee Community Center. Elders in Action, Ride Connection, Store-to-Door, Meals-on-wheels, and the YWCA of Greater Portland are other important organizations that help senior citizens.

Food insecurity is a major health issue for vulnerable seniors and it is growing all over the U.S. A lack of a healthy diet will contribute to depression in sixty percent of seniors, it will cause a fifty-three percent increase in the probability of a heart attack, and it may contribute to heart failure in forty percent of seniors. Transportation is in high demand by low-income older adults and those that are disabled. In the past fiscal year 21,918 requests for transportation in Multnomah County were turned down due to a lack of funding, but the need is expected to increase by twelve percent over the next four years. It is hard to get to sites where meals are provided, and food pantries are hard to access by transit, especially for the disabled. Therefore an increasing number of seniors need in-home meals, with Meals-on-Wheels receiving less than required to serve all those in need. Under the current lack of funding for seniors programs there is a high turn down rate for transportation through Ride Connection.

It is well known that the housing market is very tight in Portland making it very difficult for low-income seniors to move from their homes into equally satisfactory circumstances. Multnomah County needs 30,000 more affordable units. A conservative estimate would be that it would take from $3 to $6 billion to build these units over many years. Currently the rental housing vacancy rate for apartments is about 3%, but it is closer to 1% or less for the least affordable units. In this market rents are rising as fast as any city in the U.S. and no cause evictions are common. Public housing units are full and it will take from two to five years for a person on the waiting list to get into an apartment.

Oregon Project Independence (OPI) is one of Oregon’s important senior care programs. Through it seniors can stay in their homes rather than going to another housing option for older people. Almost always it is more expensive to move. Through OPI seniors receive supplemental services when it become impossible for them to provide for themselves. It costs $332 per month to serve an OPI client, $803 per month to serve a Medicaid in-home service client, $846 per month to serve a Medicaid client in a community based care facility, and $3,168 per month to serve a Medicaid client in a nursing home facility. This is a program that was pioneered by Oregon and has been duplicated in many other states. But it always seems that it is underfunded despite the savings it provides all Oregonians. Without OPI and other services seniors would require more costly living in public supported housing.

Nearly half of the people in the United States won’t have enough to live on after retirement and one day anyone could be in this situation. This is why it is a necessity to save for your old age even if it is difficult. With the number of retired people increasing daily this becomes a serious funding issue for government. While schools, roads, housing, and medical care are very important, the welfare of our most vulnerable senior citizens cannot be overlooked. You may find yourself taking care of a loved one and eventually everyone runs a risk of being unable to provide for his or her needs at sometime in the future.