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How to wrap your arms around a topic as broad as poverty and aging Date: 08/17/15

Suzanne Travers

By Suzanne Travers

This series in City Limits on aging in New York City began with a musing from my editor, Jarrett Murphy: how will the growing number of seniors make ends meet as they age?

Despite some national trends, it’s a question with very local answers. In New York City, it turned out that many seniors are struggling financially: one in five are poor, and senior poverty rates, which are dropping across the country, are on the rise.

I wanted to convey the reasons for this discrepancy, tell the stories of seniors grappling with inadequate income, and write about the government and non-profit response to what some characterized as an invisible crisis. My focus wasn’t investigative digging so much as pulling together information from many sources to create a portrait that described both big-picture trends and the lived experience of seniors in the city.

Even in places where senior poverty is declining, women, immigrants, and people of color face greater challenges in meeting their basic needs for food, housing and healthcare as they age. A simple choice, like opting to skip meals to pay for rent or medication, can snowball, as missed meals put seniors at greater risk for falls and their costly outcomes. Programs like Meals on Wheels and the federal food stamp program can be life-saving for seniors and cost-saving for taxpayers.

Social Security and Medicare have done much to reduce senior poverty rates since the 1960s, but these benefits support seniors unevenly. Women typically receive lower monthly benefits due to lower lifetime earnings. Immigrants, depending on their situation, may receive lower benefits or none at all. With life expectancy longer than ever, even diligent savers may outlast their nest eggs. Many seniors took hits during the Great Recession, losing jobs, wages and retirement savings.

All that is to say that there are many stories to be told depending on your community’s demographics and diversity. Census data may provide helpful data, but your state and local-level Area Office on Aging likely has more detailed information broken down by age bracket, income-level, and ethnicity.

The Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement, the National Council on Aging, and the Kaiser Family Foundation all had helpful data and analysis that provided national context. The Center for an Urban Future issued a detailed report on NYC’s immigrant seniors that is worth reading for any reporter covering an area with an immigrant population. I benefitted from the resources of New York City government, whose agencies had undertaken recent studies on senior enrollment in food stamps, including which neighborhoods had the highest under-enrollment rates, and similar studies on enrollment in the city’s senior rent-freeze program.

I found sources through advocates for seniors, case workers, at a senior center, and by stopping seniors on the street in a variety of neighborhoods. One woman I tapped wore khaki pants, a button-down blouse, and shoulder-length gray hair, but instead of the comfortable, middle-class retirement I was expecting to hear about, she told me she was 73 years old and living in a homeless shelter since her release from prison where she served 28 years for murder. No retirement savings for her. I welcomed this encounter as a reminder of the huge range of experiences people bring into their lives as older adults.

Going into it, I felt my biggest challenge was how to make an un-flashy story interesting. In the writing I hoped to pull readers along with succinct statistics and demographic information, while offering nuggets of human interest in descriptions of nuanced situations and complex lives.

Regardless of where you are, the act of putting the spotlight on this issue – how seniors are paying the bills – which is lived by millions of seniors and their younger family members but not often written about comprehensively – is bound to turn up interesting stories and angles to pursue. Such stories have the potential to guide seniors, families, communities and government entities to address growing needs.

Suzanne Travers has written about seniors and aging in New York and New Jersey for over a decade. As a reporter for the Herald News and Bergen Record, she co-authored an award-winning guide to Medicare Part D, covered the White House Conference on Aging, and profiled a New Jersey couple as they moved from their hometown of 90 years to be near their daughter and again 18 months later when they died 11 days apart in California. As a freelance journalist she has written for various publications, including the Star Ledger, Commonweal, and most recently, City Limits, where she has covered elder abuse, post-Katrina foreclosures, and the challenges facing NYC's public libraries. She can be reached at