The senior living industry has largely ignored this real and growing issue!
By Steve Moran
Maybe . . .
On Sunday November 15, the New York Times published a tug on your heartstrings article titled As Lives Lengthen Costs Mount about the cost of of living for seniors in New York.
Particularly poignant was the contrast between Frederick Jones and Ping Wong whose ages are both north of 85. They also both live on fixed incomes and have health problems that limit their mobility.
Here is the rub . . .
Ping Wong, worked her whole life at low paying jobs and never saved anything. She lived modestly and has no money worries thanks to a government funded safety net. She has a retirement income of about $1,000 per month (which includes a food stamp allotment), but lives in a subsidized apartment that costs her $200 per month. She also has a home attendant who comes in for 7 hours per day to clean, cook and run errands. Ping pays nothing for that. She used to receive free meals-on-wheels seven days a week, but stopped getting them because she does not like the food. She says, “I never worry about money.”
Jones on the other hand, worked hard, and did all he could to secure a comfortable retirement. He worked for the City of New York, and when he retired he had significant savings, a union pension and social security benefits. His total monthly income is around $3,000 per month, which is simply not enough to live in “market rate” New York City.
He currently resides in a rent controlled apartment on the third floor of a building that has no elevator. He would like to move to a more accessible apartment but moving would mean substantially higher rents. He does not even qualify for most of the subsidized services available to the poorest of seniors.
The bottom line message is that it is better to spend it all than be responsible. This is nuts.
This is tough and dangerous territory to explore because it is fraught with politics, public policy, taxation and regulation. We have two competing narratives both of which are compelling:
Someone . . . really meaning the government . . . should do something about this.
Who is going to pay to fix these inequities?
We also need to acknowledge that these problems largely exist because without rent-controlled housing, Jones would have been forced to move to something he could afford . . . maybe out of the area . . . a long time ago. The unfairness exists because, in spite of the laws, somehow Ping managed to work her whole life at jobs where she was not paid even a legal wage, let alone a fair one.
The bottom line though is that this problem exists and needs to be addressed. As the population ages and longevity continues to increase the problem will grow.
A Path Forward
I don’t begin to have all of the answers, but I am hopeful that solutions can and will emerge. A big part of the solution is to take a clean-sheet-of-paper approach to this problem.
We need to acknowledge that the problem in part has been caused and exacerbated by some of the programs designed to keep this from happening.
We cannot solve the problem by just throwing more money into the same programs we have.
There will be some pain in the solutions. For instance, is it really reasonable that Ping gets 7 hours of help every day so she can spend her time playing games with friends.
It may require people moving to places where the cost of living and providing care is lower.
Government needs to acknowledge that independent living and assisted living are great resources that will ultimately keep seniors safe and reduce healthcare costs.
The industry needs to work with the government to create a basic senior living options that make sense for the government to invest in.
With the possible exception of LeadingAge, which I fear mostly favors getting the government to continue to fund existing inadequate programs, the senior living industry has largely ignored this real and growing issue.
It would be so amazing and so powerful for our industry to put our heads together and go to the government with a blueprint that would light the way forward to serve our seniors better and be either cost neutral or perhaps less expensive than what we are doing now.