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Seniors in a Bind

March 12, 2009 By:
Michelle Mostovy-Eisenberg, JE Feature
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Dave Welsh, 90, receives twice-monthly food packages from the Stiffel Center. Photo by Michelle Mostovy-Eisenberg
When David Broida retired a decade ago from the Upper Merion Township recreation department after 32 years, he thought he had saved enough for retirement. But the Haverford resident, 64, is back at work, coaching tennis and squash, as well as substitute teaching at private schools on the Main Line as he looks for a steady, part-time job.

"We're watching what we spend," he said. To help cut costs, he and his wife, Pat, no longer eat out at pricey restaurants and started to cut coupons.

"You don't want to outlive your money," said Broida, who is involved with Jewish causes in the area."Under today's economy, you have to be more careful than you used to be."

The financial plight of older citizens is growing worse as the recession deepens. Elderly retirees who thought they had saved enough have watched their nest eggs, pensions and investments lose value. Some are putting off retirement, choosing cheaper living arrangements or looking to trim their "guilty" pleasures -- traveling, dining and entertainment -- things they should be able to enjoy after decades of hard work. As for those already on a fixed income, they are making do with the bare necessities.

"Look, everybody is cutting back," said Bernie Levinson, 84, who lives at the Quadrangle, a Sunrise independent-living community in Haverford, with his wife Judy, 75. The couple, who are both retired, are buying fewer clothes, giving fewer gifts to family and charities, and attending fewer concerts and movies.

"The normal kinds of things we would do, we're cutting back on," said Levinson, although they haven't yet had to cut back on necessities, such as medications. "If your income is less, you have to spend less.

At 81, Seymour Meyers has never even retired. He still works full-time, putting in long days selling office furniture. His girlfriend, Marilyn Silberstein, 64, a social-worker-turned-Realtor, is looking to supplement her income with a census job to pay for her $600-a-month health insurance and other expenses.

Silberstein said that the couple doesn't "have anything saved."

But whereas her partner "really loves to work," she would love to retire.

"But it isn't going to happen," she said. "I accepted that a long time ago."

Silberstein has cut down on physical therapy to alleviate severe back pain because the $40 co-pay per visit three times a week was becoming too expensive.

She and Meyers also recently sold their three-bedroom home in Germantown and moved to a more affordable place in Elkins Park. Although the move was in part due to the number of stairs in their former home, Silberstein said that the current economic situation sped up the decision-making process.

Pinpointing a Part of the Population
For those at the low end of the economic ladder, the situation is getting worse.

According to the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, Philadelphia has 250,000 senior citizens, the highest percentage of seniors among the 10 largest cities in the United States. Nearly 120,000 of these seniors are defined as "poor," which means they live at or below the poverty level.

The most recent local numbers, from the 1996/97 Jewish Population Study, showed that 44,600 Jews ages 65 and older lived in the five-county Philadelphia region, representing 22 percent of the local Jewish population. At that time, roughly one-third of the households with seniors had incomes lower than $25,000.

Taking into account regional trends, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which sponsored the study, estimated that this age group has increased slightly in total number and as a percentage of the Jewish population. The number of residents 85 and above is also believed to have increased in recent years.

Federation, which had determined the frail elderly to be a top funding priority even before the current recession, decided to increase its allocation to senior services by nearly $1 million -- to more than $4.5 million in total -- over the next 18 months. The increase, to service providers such as the Klein Center and the Jewish Family and Children's Service, is primarily targeted at programs that enable the frail elderly to age in their homes.

Packages 'Even More Important'
Susan Keller, a social worker and the assistant director of the Golden Slipper Center for Seniors in Philadelphia, said that "we have many seniors who live at the poverty level, so it's a struggle for them whatever is happening in the economy."

At the Stiffel Senior Center in South Philadelphia, social worker Judy Woloff said that she's been busy helping members apply for energy-assistance programs and other services.

She also gets many questions about the economic stimulus package, with the elderly inquiring if they will receive any additional funds. (As the package currently stands, millions of people who receive Social Security benefits would get a one-time payment of $250, as will veterans who receive pensions and disadvantaged people who receive Supplemental Security Income payments.)

She said that even the now-postponed switch from analog signals to digital TV has confused many seniors, and that the cost for a converter box -- even with a $40 converter-box coupon -- or paying for cable or satellite service is another prohibitive expense for them.

On a recent weekday, the center was crowded with seniors who had come for one of the twice-monthly food distribution days. Members receive plastic bags filled with nonperishable goods, such as cereal, canned tuna and peanut butter, plus a $5 ShopRite gift card.

Stiffel's director, Susan Hoffman, said that these packages "become even more important in these economic times."

Woloff and Hoffman also reported that long-retired seniors in their 70s and 80s are now asking where they can find employment. They advise them to check with supermarkets that hire baggers or greeters. They also encourage them to seek out jobs associated with the upcoming census.

Hoffman said that many of the Stiffel seniors have cut back on the number of days per week they come to the center -- their source for a hot lunch and camaraderie -- because they can't even afford the $8 roundtrip cost to use the Paratransit system.

"They really make a small amount of money work," stated Hoffman, "but that's not to say it's not difficult. But they have more experience at how to stretch a dollar."

It has indeed been harder to make ends meet over the past several months for Edith and Harold Satanoff of South Philadelphia. The couple, 83 and 86, respectively, who have been married nearly 60 years, get by on Social Security and her small pension.

Their home of 58 years needs some repairs, "but we can't afford it, so you just do without," said Edith Satanoff during a recent visit to the Stiffel Center. She said that she and her husband mostly eat frozen meals and canned soups, the latter which often costs little more than $1.

"I love movies and would love to go out, go buy clothes again, but I can't," said Edith, whose husband used to also enjoy gambling in Atlantic City, N.J. "We don't do that anymore."

Karen Reever, director of senior services at JFCS, said that her department has been getting more calls from adult children stressed about their elderly parents' long-term care plans and whether they'll be able to afford them.

She also remarked that people are definitely looking for more affordable option when it comes to assisted-living facitilies and home care.

Reever went on to explain that lower-income seniors -- those who depend on subsidized programs or Social Security only -- might not yet have seen the same dramatic changes felt by those living off their savings and investments.

Those on a fixed income are likely to feel the impact more directly when the next fiscal year begins during the summer, and when the state budget reflects the changes made to support services for the aged.

Said Reever: "I expect us to hear from more people down the road."

WHERE TO GO FOR HELP
For support resources that serve seniors, contact:

Jewish Information and Referral Service for information about Federation and Federation-supported social-service programs
215-832-0821

Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia
267-256-2254

Klein Center
215-698-7300 Stiffel Senior Center
215-468-3500

Jewish Relief Agency
610-660-0190

Mitzvah Food Project
215-832-0531 

 

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