Senior Citizens Struggle in Today’s Economy

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By Terry Rogers

A recent report that some local senior citizens were resorting to eating pet food in order to make ends meet, met with skepticism on social media websites last week. In fact, many comments indicated that the stories were untrue, along with remarks there were many “people” foods available that cost much less than canned pet food.

“I wish I could tell you it wasn’t true,” said Renee Hoffman, Executive Director of the Frederica Senior Center. “Unfortunately, I was approached by two people in recent weeks, both of which had lost their spouses, who had resorted to eating pet food. One woman told me that she could buy three cans of pet food for $1, compared to one can of tuna, and that at least she didn’t have to spend money for electric or gas to cook the pet food. For some, it has come down to that. I did see the remarks from people who said ‘ramen noodles are cheap,’ but you have to have hot water to cook them, and frankly, some seniors must decide between utilities, food and medication.” However, Ms. Hoffman explained there is far more to the problem than seniors resorting to pet food for survival.

“Most seniors are too proud to ask for help,” she said. “Some of those I have spoken to have children who are well-to-do, but they won’t let them know they are struggling. Others are from a generation that thought retirement investments would be there for them, and when they realized it would not be, it was too late for them to correct the problem.” Barbara Vollberg was one of those who thought she had planned for retirement, but has since found she is struggling just like everyone else.

“I worked at my job for over 20 years,” Ms. Vollberg explained. “ I did have a 401K, but I wanted to be closer to my daughter, so I used that money to purchase my home and move here from California. I am in better shape than most, but I recently had open heart surgery, and my portion of the bill for that was over $10,000.” Ms. Vollberg says that the senior center was able to help her work with the hospital to reduce a significant amount of those costs. She also says that right after her surgery she was at the point she had to choose between medication and food, until one of her granddaughter’s helped her. Johanna Doak echoes those sentiments.

“My income is $543 per month, and without this senior center, I would not be able to eat,” Ms. Doak explained. “Not only that, but they help us find services that we need. I am lucky enough that my mother left me her house when she died, or I would be homeless right now.” Ms. Doak says that she is suffering with a toothache because she cannot afford to visit a dentist to have it pulled. She is on the waiting list for Nemours, but is the 1,400th person on the waiting list.

“Everything they need to do now they are told to apply online,” Ms. Hoffman explained. “Many of these senior citizens do not even own a computer, and most of them have no idea or desire to learn how to use them. Even to apply for the new healthcare system, they have to go online, and they just don’t know how to do that. Even if they do, the documents are so confusing, even I have trouble understanding them.” In addition to the drop in food stamps, Ms. Shinefolz and her husband just learned that the Bravo supplement they carry in addition to Medicare was dropping the couple.

“We now have to pay for our own prescriptions because they just dropped us with no explanation,” Ms. Shinefolz explained. The couple moved to Delaware after Mr. Shinefolz suffered several heart attacks requiring lengthy hospitalizations. Ms. Shinefolz does not drive, so her daughter gave them a cottage she owned in Delaware to move them closer to her so she could help. She says she sits in the dark at night to save money on electricity, using only the television for light.

According to the Frederica Senior Center statistics, membership at the center and the number of people taking advantage of the free meals they offer has grown significantly over the past few years. In 2010, the center served 350 free meals. That number rose to 753 in 2011 and to 1,247 in 2012. Ms. Hoffman says she wants seniors to know that their local senior center, whether it is in Frederica, Milford or any other area in Delaware, is more than just a place for people to sit around.

“We offer them trips for less than they would pay for gas to just give them a change of scenery,” Ms. Hoffman explained. “We provide them with the resources they need to survive, such as connecting them with lower cost medical treatments or prescriptions. We try to find them vision and dental care. We can cut through the red tape and help them with whatever they need, whether it is applying for the new healthcare package or working with state and federal agencies to get them the assistance they need. Everything we do we do with donations and volunteers, so we depend on the generosity of others to help provide for our seniors.”

Ms. Hoffman said that volunteers are always welcome and she often looks for people to assist seniors at home with such everyday tasks as cleaning, yard work or laundry services. She says that every senior center seeks such assistance to provide the necessities for senior citizens. To donate to a local senior center or to learn how to volunteer, individuals can find a list of senior centers at www.dhss.delaware.gov/dsaapd/seniorcenterlinks.html. For more information on helping seniors, visit www.delawareagingnetwork.org.