Uncertain times for programs that help vulnerable seniors

When President John F. Kennedy designated May as Senior Citizens Month nearly 55 years ago, he did so out of concern for an increasingly vulnerable segment of the U.S. population.

In 1963, 17 million Americans were age 65 or older. Today, that number has nearly tripled. By 2060, there will be 98 million senior citizens in this country.

You probably know that the aging Baby Boomer generation is contributing to the bump in those 65-and-older numbers. But did you know that more than half of today’s seniors are considered “economically insecure,” living at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level? Or that 70 percent of seniors rely on their Social Security checks to provide at least 50 percent of their monthly income?

According to a United Nations Population Fund study conducted in 2013, the U.S. ranked 36th in the world, behind nearly every other developed nation, for “income security” among those 65 and older. We also ranked 24th for “health of the elderly.”

With income inequality comes hunger and isolation. According to Feeding America, a national network of food banks, one out of every 11 seniors age 65 and older in the U.S. suffers from hunger. Not only is this number at a record high, the group reports, but it is expected to double within 10 years.

The problems facing our current and future generation of older Americans isn’t all doom and gloom. The United Nations’ study also found that U.S. seniors have more job opportunities than elderly in most other countries and there are thousands of nonprofits devoted to protecting vulnerable elders and ensuring that seniors have the food, housing, health care and companionship they need to live a comfortable life.

Unfortunately, many of these nonprofits are struggling to meet increased needs. Their leaders find themselves stuck between wanting to do more and having to make do with less.

Some, like the Meals on Wheels program featured in this week’s Post-Record (see Page B1), have proven their worth over and over again — in the Meals on Wheels’ case, serving 1.3 million meals each year to housebound seniors throughout Clark, Multnomah and Washington counties and never turning away a senior in need. And yet, they still have to worry that their funding levels are not enough to meet the needs of a rapidly aging population.

And even if they have adequate funding right now, many nonprofit leaders worry that the Trump administration will make severe cuts to federal programs that help pay for things like Meals on Wheels.

As Julie Piper Finley, marketing director for the regional Meals on Wheels People, told the Post-Record this week, her organization is “anticipating significant cuts” to its federal funding over the next year, but is still uncertain how large those cuts might be.

Nearly 40 percent of the local Meals on Wheels’ funding comes from the federal Older Americans Act. The rest comes from local contributions.

In his proposed 2018 budget, President Donald Trump is asking for deep cuts to many of the programs and agencies that serve our nation’s most vulnerable seniors, including the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees programs funded by the Older Americans Act, and a complete elimination of the Community Development Block Grants program, which pays for things like community centers, housing assistance and, yes, some Meals on Wheels programs.

May is now known as Older Americans Month — a perfect time to think about your own family’s plan for aging, start to research how federal policies might affect you in your older years, and to speak on behalf of seniors living in your community and beyond.

We’ve listed your U.S. Congress and Senate representatives’ contacts on the lower right side of this page. If you’re inclined, call them and ask them where they stand on these issues. Ask them if they will protect funding mechanisms for safety-net programs like Meals on Wheels.

And, if you can afford the money and the time, check out tomorrow night’s “Whiskey, Wine and Swine” fundraiser for Meals on Wheels. The information for that event can be found on Page B1 of today’s Post-Record.