In Sunlit Paradise, Seniors Go Hungry

May 29, 2015

Angelo and Mina Maffucci pose for a portrait in the kitchen of their son’s apartment, where they’ve been living for about five years — since they lost their house.
Credit Ariel Min / PBS NewsHour

It wasn’t until the Maffuccis found themselves living on cups of coffee, and coffee alone, that they finally called a food pantry for help.

The couple had sold their suburban New Jersey home where they had raised three children and set out to pursue the glossy dream of an easy-going retirement in sunny southwest Florida.

But Mina and Angelo Maffucci quickly ran out of money—overtaken by illness, bad luck and an economic crisis that claimed their dream home in Naples to foreclosure. They soon found themselves staring at an empty cupboard.

“You open up the closet and all we had was coffee,” said Angelo Maffucci, 82, who had been a drywall installer in New Jersey. “I never thought we would be down on our hands and knees like that, but it happened fast.”

While the U.S. economy adds jobs and the financial markets steadily improve, a growing number of seniors are having trouble keeping food on the table. In 2013, the most recent data available, 9.6 million Americans over the age of 60 —or one of every six older men and women—could not reliably buy or access food at least part of the year, according to an analysis from researchers at the University of Kentucky and the University of Illinois.

Enid Borden, president of the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger in Alexandria, Va., which commissioned the report, said the country was doing a “worse job in trying to end senior hunger in America,” noting that the number of seniors who “face the threat of hunger has gone up every single year since we started doing the research on this.”

“And that’s not good,” she said.

Across the country, the rate of food insecurity—the academic term for a disruption in the mundane yet vital task of maintaining a basic, nutritious diet—among seniors has more than doubled since 2001, according to the National Council on Aging. And it is projected to climb even further as the Baby Boom generation gets older.

The precise conditions fueling the increase in senior hunger are unclear: the poverty rate for seniors, in fact, fell from 2001 to 2005, though it has risen every year since, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. And, all the while, the rate of food insecurity among older Americans has ticked upward.

But researchers who study the trend say the causes are complicated and overlap. There are the logistical challenges of getting to a grocery store when many seniors can no longer drive, either because of physical disability or because they cannot afford a car. Long rides on public transportation are difficult to endure for seniors suffering from illness, disability and dementia. And those maladies alone can rob seniors of the ability to feed themselves.

Out-of-pocket medical expenses, which increase steadily as people age, often use up large portions of monthly income for seniors, monies that otherwise might be used on groceries.

The descent into privation for seniors accustomed to middle-class life is usually swift and unforgiving, say the advocates who aid them, and it is often also triggered by failing health, the inability to work or the death of a spouse.

For Sarah Knight, 75, that moment arrived when her husband, a former jeweler from New Jersey who has Alzheimer’s disease, left his job at a Naples supermarket. As his disease robbed her husband of his faculties, the couples’ budget also suffered.

“He’s just falling apart,” Knight said of her husband.

Just one of his medications costs $125 a month, she said, and there is little left from their Social Security check for essentials like food and toilet paper. She found assistance at Jewish Family and Community Services of Southwest Florida, which gives her $100 a month for food and gas and helped her apply for food stamps. Knight was awarded $16 a month, but she says that help comes with a psychological cost.

“All my life, I’ve struggled. So, now, in my 70s, I have to struggle all, all over again?” said Knight. “You know how ashamed I get?”

That sentiment is echoed by Joanne Bartolomeo, 95, who retired from Philadelphia to Naples and continued to work at an upscale dress shop in the tony Venetian Village until just a few years ago. But after an emergency surgery, Bartolomeo could no longer work; she couldn’t keep up with her rising rent and money for food became scarce. Her life was swept into disarray.

“That’s the thing that bothers me,” said Bartolomeo. “At one time, I was in control.”

Pride is one the central reasons, experts say, that only one-third of eligible seniors are enrolled in food stamps, compared to three-quarters of the eligible general population.

“It’s a different generation,” said Thomas Felke, an assistant professor of social work at Florida Gulf Coast University. The idea of relying on government benefits “may not be something that they admit to,” he added, especially after what “they thought was going to be their life in paradise.”

And many seniors, who have perhaps never before navigated the sometimes complicated public services safety net, don’t know where to look for help or mistakenly believe they don’t qualify for food stamps or other assistance programs, including the Commodity Supplemental Food Program.

“If you’re a single senior sitting in an apartment, you don’t know what to do, you don’t know where to go,” said Al Brislain, president of Harry Chapin Food Bank in Fort Myers, Florida.

To help reach potential hungry seniors, Brislain employs social workers who scour local apartment buildings, senior centers and elsewhere to get the word out about food pantries, home-delivery services like Meals on Wheels and government programs.

When the discussions reveal deep embarrassment over a senior’s plight, Brislain says he reassures older Americans “that they deserve this help, that it’s neighbors helping neighbors, that it’s the government supporting you in your time of need.”

In Naples, the prospect of poverty and hunger hiding amid the towering beachside condominiums and acres of golf courses has been a blow to the city’s image as a ritzy retirement destination and vacation playland. Just a short drive from the upscale Fifth Avenue shopping district, with its impressive palm trees and faux-colonial architecture, are gated communities where researchers, using Census data, have detected surprisingly high rates of poverty. But following up door-to-door to find out more about the well-being and food insecurity has proved challenging.

“These gated communities don’t want people coming around asking questions about poverty,” said Felke. “It’s really hard to find out who is hungry, who is struggling.”

With the help of a Naples food pantry and a weekly ration of $34 in food stamps, the Maffuccis’ cupboards are no longer bare. But nor are they filled with nutritious food. A recent delivery included flavored Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, Uncle Ben’s rice, matzos and pasta.

Angelo Maffucci’s doctor has long urged him to lose weight, especially by eating more vegetables and fish, but it can be a challenge.

“Where you gonna get the money to buy the fish? Fish is expensive!” he said. “If you have it once a week, you’re lucky.”

So on most days, the couple eats pasta instead. “You can cook a pound of pasta for less than $2, and you get a meal,” he said. “So that and a cup of coffee, we get through the day.”

Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.