The Elderly and Services Available to them - New York
Author: Charles DeMicoli (New York City)
I’ve lived in New York City for the past 27 years and so my perspective is based on services for seniors available in New York and the U.S.A. I would also like to note that the majority, if not all of the Maltese Americans blend and assimilate very easily and thoroughly with the system, and therefore most of these observations apply to them.
I have been involved with the Maltese Center, located in Astoria, New York, in various positions on the committee. The Maltese Center, besides other things, serves as a gathering spot for Maltese Americans and there are many activities organized for all ages: bus trips, childrens’ trips to museums, etc., cultural events such as poetry readings, stage productions, exhibitions, sports, Maltese Mass with g¹ana folk music, Maltese language lessons, and many other aspects of Maltese life and culture.
We do have a few senior citizen members who frequent the center, and some of my observations are based on conversations with some of them. I have also contacted other retired seniors. In the United States, the Maltese communities are mostly concentrated in and around three major urban areas: New York City, Detroit and San Francisco. There is also a small, growing community of retirees in Central Florida.
As in the case in much of the world, people in the U.S. are living longer than ever. This happy turn of events is mostly noted in nations with high living standards and excellent health care, but also by varying degrees throughout the world. According to the Department of Social Security, life expectancy in the U.S. increased from an average of 77.5 years in 1940 to 82.5 today.
Life expectancy of males and females is increasing largely thanks to medical advances, lifestyle and behavioral changes. Various programs instituted by the government and by private organizations help towards maintaining a quality of life that is as good or better than when the senior citizen was part of the work force.
Some of the issues that affect the lifestyles of senior citizens are:
- Health Needs: Physical/Mental/Social
This list is by no means complete, but these themes came up when discussing the day to day events with senior citizens.
Transportation provides seniors with the mobility to be independent and enables them to connect their lives with others. When a senior citizen is able to drive his or her own vehicle, then he/she has the freedom to go wherever and whenever he/she needs to go without inconveniencing family members or friends or having to change their schedule in order to get a ride.
The main transportation vehicle is the private car, but people generally drive less as they age: a 65-year-old person typically drives half as many miles as a 35-year-old.
Though many older people drive their own cars, as time goes by they rely increasingly on rides from others, on walking, or on public transportation. This is especially true of those whose eyesight has declined and whose reaction times have slowed.
Curtailed mobility brings with it other problems. The isolation created by limited mobility, dependency on others and inadequate public transit can harm anyone’s physical and mental well-being.
Now, unless a person lives in a major urban area, public transportation can be very limited. Many older retired persons who live in the suburbs or rural areas have different travel patterns from their younger relatives and neighbors. Their schedules and needs do not coincide with that of younger family members or neighbors. Seniors are not usually heading downtown or to office parks during rush hour when younger people, who might give them a ride, are.
Public transit routes and schedules also tend to be skewed toward work and rush hours patterns, so there may be infrequent service or no service at all to the destinations older people have. In some cases, some older people may have difficulty getting on and off buses.
In New York City though, most buses “kneel” in order to lower the steps leading into the bus making it easier to get on and off. On buses and on the subway, seats closest to the exits are given first preference to older people and to the disabled. On most routes, there are buses available with wheelchair loading lifts. Seniors also get reduced fares.
In addition to this, all curbs have ramps cut into the corners to allow for wheelchairs and motorized chairs to cross intersections without extra help. A.D.A. (Americans with Disabilities Act) mandated ramps and other measures that provide equal access to buildings are intended for wheelchair bound persons, but they also help seniors.
Longer “walk” periods on traffic lights allow elder persons enough time to safely cross certain intersections, usually close to community/senior citizen centers and housing for elders.
A number of parking spaces close to the entrance of establishments, malls and private parking lots are allocated for disabled or reduced mobility drivers who have the proper permits or licence plates.
According to the A.A.R.P. (American Association of Retired Persons), more than half of Americans over 80 do not drive. This translates into five million people whose transportation choices are limited and who will rely more and more on public transportation. Planning and management of public transportation must allow for this substantial increase in ridership, for better access to those whose mobility is impaired, and for schedules and routes that respond to demand in both urban and rural areas.
As the older population grows, innovations, such as transit service routes, paratransit, customized routes and schedules, a varied transportation fleet using vans instead of buses on some routes and safe pedestrian walkways can contribute to the solution.
The Social Security Act of 1935 pays monthly benefits to retired persons, survivors and dependents and to disabled workers. Approximately 28% of the people receiving Social Security benefits are under 65, including 4 million children with a dead or disabled parent. Retiring age is presently 65, going up to 67 for those born after 1954. Reduced benefits are paid at age 62.
During the Depression years of the 1930’s, millions of Americans were destitute. The majority of older Americans were living in poverty: many lost their jobs and their life savings when businesses and banks failed. The country was too broke to offer much help immediately, but President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and other policy makers recognized that America needed a system that could protect retirees in the future.
As a result, they eventually agreed on a program of “old-age insurance” that became the basis for Social Security. Such programs had started in Europe in Germany in 1889 under Kaiser Wilhelm, designed by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who established a contributory old-age pension system requiring wage earners and their employers to contribute to a fund for the aged.
There is much discussion and concern right now as to whether there will be enough funds in the system to be able to pay future retirees. Today there are 3.3 workers/taxpayers for every Social Security beneficiary, but in the year 2030 there may be as few as two workers for every beneficiary. The most recent estimates say that the Social Security Trust Funds are, and will remain, adequate through the year 2034.
Social Security was never intended to be any retired person’s sole support (though 16% of beneficiaries have no other income and more than a third of beneficiaries older than 65 rely on Social Security payments for 50 to 89% of their income). The average monthly check now is about $800, and this typically covers only one third of an average person’s modest monthly expenses. Social Security, along with Medicare, has helped reduce poverty among older people to about one in eight. Without these benefits, the A.A.R.P. estimates that number could be as high as 50%.
Medicare hospital insurance is also financed through Social Security taxes. People over 65, those who receive Social Security disability payments for 24 months or who have permanent kidney failure can get Medicare. Medicare has two parts: Part A: Hospital Insurance, which covers most inpatient hospital expenses; and Part B: Supplementary Medical Insurance, which covers doctors’ bills and other medical expenses. Everyone must pay a premium for Part B.
Supplemental Security Income (S.S.I.) payments may be available for people who have not worked long enough under Social Security to qualify for benefits, or for those whose Social Security benefits are very low.
Medicaid helps people of all ages with low income pay for medical bills. For those older people who are poor, Medicaid picks up the gaps in Medicare. Medicaid covers more than 40% of the costs of long-term care, including nursing home care and home community-based care, for older people and those with disabilities, and cover one child in four.
For the larger part, Maltese American retirees own their own homes, made sound financial investments and also receive pensions from job related retirement plans, annuity funds or pensions. These, combined with Social Security payments and Medicare benefits contribute towards a comfortable retirement. There are some who sell their houses and belongings and return to Malta, others stay put, while others elect to go and live in retirement communities, designed and engineered with the needs and limitations of elder persons in mind.
Most of these adult communities are located in central Florida, where the weather is pleasant throughout the year. While New York City is one of the most senior citizen-friendly cities, the weather and its hectic pace may not be the most ideal for some seniors. Those who require constant care can spend the remaining years of their lives in better nursing homes, home care or other private institutions geared towards the special needs of seniors with certain health problems.
Some may also choose to have a part time job: some industries, such as the hospitality and fast-food industries offer job opportunities to elders for various reasons, the top being reliability. A part-time job may help a retired person in more ways than one – providing financial, some social interactions and self image benefits.
Though physical problems and need for closer medical attention increase as the population gets older, the problem of mental health need to be taken in consideration. To reiterate, New York City and the U.S. offer some of the best health care and benefits to older people. The many services available to seniors are very varied, from physical therapy to physical activities, social gatherings and outings, reduced or free college tuition, reduced prices specials in stores, reduced admittance charges to museums and other cultural institutions, to name a few. Community and senior centers offer classes for seniors from pottery craft to painting, bridge, chess, singing, dancing, poetry – the range is very wide indeed.
Unfortunately, some seniors do not or can not participate in these activities. The loss of a spouse, declining health, limited mobility and financial concerns sometimes add up to become an unbearable burden for some. Older persons account for about a third of suicides throughout the nation. Services are available to provide social contact with shut-in seniors, such as “Meals-on-Wheels”, visits by social workers and programs to foster interaction between teenagers and seniors.
Radio and television programs help with the loneliness and the boredom. For some, the internet has become their salvation: they participate in chat rooms and expand their circle of friends and acquaintances. For Maltese Americans, it’s a means of keeping up-to-date with current events in Malta. They also participate in radio call-in shows on the two stations that transmit live on the internet and on private mail lists.
In this respect, the Government/Emigrants’ Commission should dedicate some time on the internet radio service that fits the schedule of overseas retired older persons in different countries in order to serve as an outreach program. Help should also be considered in setting up seniors with basic computers or internet terminals and training them on the use of the internet.
Some form of outreach programs necessary to seek out those senior emigrants who need help and also to try to educate and point these social clubs and centers towards being better equipped to deal with this growing population of seniors and also to streamline their activities, cultural and social. A few retirees find these clubs as a welcome haven to mingle, read newspapers or watch videos from Malta and just socialize and reminisce about the old Malta that is now, unfortunately, gone forever.
I propose a worldwide federation that will stay in contact with all these orgaizations. The tremendous contribution to Malta and the Maltese emigrants should not be ignored. This job should be entrusted to a person who would just be involved with this operation, not just run it as a sideline.
The Government/Emigrants’ Commission should have a database in place to keep track of all persons, retired or not, throughout the U.S. and other countries where emigrants have settled. In fact, the scope of this proposed database should be widened to include first and subsequent generations.
The contribution that social clubs or centers, set up and organized by emigrants for emigrants have made a substantial, though undocumented, contribution towards the maintenance and awareness of Maltese culture throughout the Maltese Abroad communities. Some of these associations, in New York, go back sixty years or more. They have helped a large number of people get jobs, find living quarters and learn fast the ins and outs of the system. They kept old traditions alive and as yet, I feel, these clubs and the persons who worked hard to keep them going, and other individuals who have helped many new emigrants, have not received the recognition they deserve.
U.S. Government publications
Social Security Office