Senior services feel fiscal squeeze

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By Marisol Bello, USA TODAY
In the picturesque seacoast town of Portsmouth, R.I., retired nurse Nancy Noonin joins other senior citizens every week for dance classes at the senior center.
For 90 minutes, Noonin, 75, cha-chas, waltzes and tangos.

“I like to be moving,” she says. “I’m still pretty active. If they cut the class, I would miss it.”

It looks like that’s about to happen.

Under spending cuts that took effect this month to close the state’s $384 million budget gap, grants to senior centers are being cut in half to $1.1 million. When cutbacks are unavoidable, dance classes fall lower on the priority list, says Cynthia Koniecki, director of the Portsmouth Multi-Purpose Senior Center.
Other states are in the same boat. Fewer seniors are receiving home-delivered meals, personal care help and other services as states struggle with tighter budgets and the senior population grows.

States are cutting other parts of their budgets, too, including other human services. Seniors, though, feel the pinch especially hard because their needs are growing while budgets are shrinking. The biggest wave of Baby Boomers turns 65 over the next decade. By the time the first Boomers officially become seniors in 2011, the Census Bureau says, 40 million people will be 65 and older. By 2030, seniors will be one-fifth of the population.

More people in need

Senior service agencies rely on federal, state and local sources of funding. Tighter budgets at all government levels, the struggling economy and higher gas and food prices are putting their services at risk, says Martha Roherty of the National Association of State Units on Aging.

“These are discretionary programs,” she says. “It’s one of the areas that are unfortunately cut when the economy is down, and it is happening at a time when people need services.”

A survey by USA TODAY found that 10 states have cut or expect to cut spending on senior services this year, 16 expect funding to stay the same and 24 states and the District of Columbia have increased funding “” but even those raising their budgets are not keeping up with growth in the number of seniors. Increases are paying for rising costs of food and gas, not additional services, Roherty says.

That all translates into less service at the local and regional levels. A survey by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging found that more than half of the service providers who make up its membership reduced services this year, and 90% of its members expect to do so next year.

Alaska is increasing this year’s budget for senior services 10% to $11 million. Apart from inflation adjustments, it’s the first real increase in 10 years, says Denise Daniello, director of the state’s Commission on Aging. Meanwhile, the state’s population ages 60 and older grew 44% from 2000 to 2007 to 76,000 people.

“Years ago, when people turned 65, they headed south, and for whatever reason, they’re now choosing to stay,” Daniello says. “They have roots, and because of that, the senior population is growing.”

Stretching the dollars

In Michigan, funding is flat as the state reels from budget shortfalls, a struggling automobile industry and high unemployment.

“We’re taking the same dollars from 10 years ago and stretching them further,” says Sharon Gire, head of the Office of Services to the Aging.

The number of Michigan seniors grew 6% to 1.26 million from 2005 to 2006, according to the Census Bureau. The population is expected to rise another 6% to 1.33 million by 2010.

The state has a growing waiting list for services to help seniors with bathing, house cleaning and other personal care. The list rose from 2,706 in 2005 to 3,727 in 2007. In the same period, the number of people getting home-delivered meals fell from 65,921 to 62,816.

In Rhode Island, budget cuts would reduce activities and meals at senior centers, limit the number of meals delivered to homebound seniors, require a charge to seniors for what is now free transportation to doctors and reduce aid to low-income seniors for home heating costs, says Terry Murphy of the Cranston Department of Senior Services and secretary of the Rhode Island Senior Center Directors Association.

“There’s a crisis,” Koniecki says. Her center received $18,000 last year in state community service grants to pay for activities, meals and an Alzheimer’s support group. Now those services will be reduced.

“Some of these seniors have nobody,” so they rely on the center, Koniecki says. “If you take away the programs, people will stay home and vegetate and get depressed.”

Tough choices

Jeff Neal, a spokesman for Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri, says the state has little choice. To balance the budget, Carcieri focused on the three areas where the state spends the most: personnel, grants to cities and towns, and human services, which include senior programs.

“I’ve been 22 years in the Legislature, and I’ve never seen such a drastic year in terms of the budget and finances,” says state Sen. Daniel Issa, a Democrat from Central Falls, who opposed the cuts to senior services. “It’s very trying times.”

At 80, Dorothy Bailey relies on the senior center in Cranston to keep her out of a nursing home. She used to visit the center every day, but now she doesn’t go out because of heart problems and knee pain that makes it difficult to walk. The center sends a worker weekly to clean her house, cook and help her with other chores.

Her daughter lives in Arizona and her son died two years ago. “I don’t have anybody here,” she says. “I have to depend on other people. I hate to do that.”

She says scaling back services hurts people like her.

“I think it’s terrible,” she says. “There are people who are even worse off than I am. Poor seniors have nowhere to go. … It’s the worst thing they can do.”

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