Nurses from The Center for the Partially Sighted give free vision screenings to seniors at the Santa Monica Senior Recreation Center in June. Organizations like the center help seniors make ends meet as they struggle on fixed incomes in the down economy. (photo by Brandon Wise)

CITYWIDE — As the unemployed and disillusioned occupy Wall Street to express their discontent with the state of the economy and their financial security, another quieter group is struggling to make ends meet.

Senior citizens, aged 62 and above, living on fixed income or the yield of their investments, were hit hard by the recession and continue to feel its effects, which presents challenges to local resources trying to help them.

“The main thing with seniors is that you remain on a fixed income, and everything around you is going up and inflating,” said Barbara Browning, chair of the Santa Monica Commission for the Senior Community.

According to a report compiled by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the downturn left millions with “higher expenses, lower incomes, depleted savings and reduced home equity or homes lost to foreclosure,” each a further drain on a population with few ways to supplement their fixed incomes.

As a result, in 2009, one in six Americans over the age of 65 lived in poverty, and half lived on less than $18,500 a year.

Social Security kept 36 percent of seniors out of poverty in 2008, and represented a primary source of income for almost half of older Americans and was the primary source of income for older minorities.

As prices go up, state and federal government expenditures on programs drops.

According to the California Department of Health Care Services, reductions to health care programs like Medi-Cal dropped $1.4 billion in the 2011-12 budget alone. Reductions in Adult Protective Services and In Home Supportive Services also directly impact seniors, particularly those less able to care for themselves.

In Santa Monica, one thing that the recession did not lessen was the cost of living, which has continued to rise. Even elderly in rent controlled apartments have seen their costs increase while their income stays the same or dwindles, Browning said.

There are programs in place to help, and every little bit counts, said Jeannette Hartman, benefits enrollment manager with WISE & Healthy Aging, a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting seniors.

Every time a senior walks in the door, Hartman checks to see if they are enrolled in a multiplicity of cost-saving measures, like the Santa Monica Utility User’s Tax exemption that saves 10 percent on utility bills; the lifeline program that allows unlimited local calls from a landline for a nominal monthly fee; or the CARE program, which offers further discounts on utilities.

Even if they don’t mean much alone, each discount adds up to a significant amount, Hartman said.

“When you’re a senior dealing with hot summers and cold winters, you shouldn’t have to make the decision, ‘Do I not turn on the heat because if I do I won’t be able to eat, or won’t be able to buy the prescription that my doctor ordered for me,’” Hartman said.

For instance, the Santa Monica Finance Department recently announced an increase in the income eligibility limit for the Utility User’s Tax exemption, which knocks off the 10 percent charge on utilities put on by City Hall.

It increases the income qualification for a single-person household by $417 to $27,062, and the multi-person household by $478 to $31,011, in line with a 1.6 percent increase in the consumer price index for wage and clerical workers in the Los Angeles region.

The change is calculated each year, said Don Patterson, business and revenue manager with City Hall, and may not result in a large increase in the number of people eligible for the benefit.

“Any time you change eligibility or asset limits, more people can qualify for the benefit,” Hartman said.

And every little bit helps.

Hartman spends time helping seniors through mountains of paperwork only to get $10 or $12 extra per month in food benefits from CalFresh, California’s version of the food stamps program.

Only around 50 percent of applicants qualify for full benefits under the program.

It doesn’t help that some of those benefit qualifications are calculated using a federal poverty measure that was developed in the 1960s by estimating the amount that food costs and multiplying that number by three.

The amount doesn’t come close to approximating the money it takes for a senior to get by in California, said Michael Richard, associate state director for capitol action at the AARP.

The UCLA Center for Health Policy and Research developed an alternate measure called the Elder Economic Planning Index, which looks at health care, housing, transportation and utility costs to get a picture of what it would take for an older Californian to meeting their basic needs, Richard said.

That number, in 2009, was almost twice the federal poverty threshold of $10,830 for a single-person household.

Despite the limitations imposed upon them, not all seniors are willing to take advantage of those programs, Hartman said.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had seniors who qualified for a benefit and said, ‘No, other people need it more than I do,’” she said. “It’s really hard, because if they need the benefit, they need the benefit.”

Santa Monica is doing better by its seniors than many cities, Browning said, particularly with services like Dial-a-Ride.

However, transit and housing remain chief concerns for seniors in Santa Monica.

City Councilmember Kevin McKeown has in the past pushed for fees paid for new development to be used to help subsidize bus passes for elderly residents, similar to the “Any Line, Any Time” program offered to Santa Monica College students.

“Mobility is freedom, but my primary concern for Santa Monica seniors is stability and security in their housing,” McKeown wrote in an e-mail. “Senior renters on fixed incomes need special protections.”

Measure RR, which extended eviction protections to non-rent controlled housing, and other ordinances which increase the amount of money given to seniors and other residents when they are asked to leave their homes was part of that package.

Seniors who need help accessing needed programs or exemptions can go to WISE & Healthy Aging at the Ken Edwards Center on 1527 Fourth St.

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