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Effort needed to fix senior housing crisis: Guest view

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Jeff Davis, CFO and senior vice president of Presbyterian Senior Living
Jeff Davis, CFO and senior vice president of Presbyterian Senior Living - (Photo / )

When my grandfather retired from his position as New York's deputy fire chief under Nelson Rockefeller, he was fortunate to have savings, a pension and benefits that gave security to both himself and my grandmother.

Three decades later, at 88, he struggled to cover rent for a modest apartment as prices went up and his income remained fixed. When he passed away at the age of 89, my grandmother was relieved to find out she’d been selected to move into an affordable housing project. Her next five years there were some of the best in her life.

Sadly, the scenario that my grandparents faced years ago has grown exponentially worse for many seniors seeking housing today. Since the 2008 financial crisis, housing costs have risen at a steep rate. Meanwhile, Social Security increases have been minimal, defined-benefit pension plans are disappearing and the average 401(k) savings are low — all as the senior population continues to grow.

According to AARP, one in five Americans will be over age 65 by 2030, setting the stage for the most severe shortage in affordable senior housing that our country has ever faced.

A look at Central Pennsylvania’s retirees illustrates how this problem hits close to home. Today, Central Pennsylvania is home to 239,000 people age 65 or older. Of this population, roughly one in six seniors lives at, below or near the poverty line.

By and large, these individuals were not in a state of poverty when they first retired from long careers that contributed greatly to everything we have today. But now, they are faced with the dilemma of having to make rent and utilities that cost an average of $894 a month. For a senior at the poverty line receiving around $957 per month, this leaves just $63 a month — or $15 a week — leftover for food, medication, transportation and other vital living expenses after the rent is paid. Increases in housing costs have far exceeded those of pensions and social security.

At Presbyterian Senior Living (PSL), a nonprofit organization that has provided retirement and senior care services for more than 90 years, we believe that society should be measured by how we treat our older adults. That’s why we are committed to doing all we can to provide seniors with affordable, safe housing. In 2004, PSL started an affordable housing initiative that has expanded to provide more than 1,100 units to date.

In our area many county and local governments, together with the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, have done amazing work with the funding they have. This, though, has only been able to scratch the surface when it comes to providing stable living situations for seniors in need. As a result, too many seniors remain on wait lists for years as they try to live on limited resources.

So, what can be done to fix this?

For those in retirement and in danger of losing housing, help is available.

Local ombudsman can direct those in need to specific resources.

If you are navigating this issue for yourself or a loved one planning for retirement, the best action you can take is to begin planning earlier than you think you should, while you are healthy and your finances are stable. We all age differently and have different needs when it comes to housing, so it’s never too soon to start exploring options.

It’s also key to keep an open mind. For instance, many seniors are reluctant to embrace a communal living situation at first, but after time passes most find that they enjoy the quality of health care, social benefits and recreational activities that senior living communities provide. Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and visit different locations.

Although individuals can take certain steps to protect themselves, we will ultimately need to address this issue on a societal level if we want to create real change.

That is why it is critical we place pressure on decision makers at home and in Washington, D.C., to start putting our elders first. Seniors have paid their dues to society, and the time is long overdue for our communities to ensure elders have the right to a humane living situation.

Whether you are a senior, a caretaker or simply a concerned citizen, it is critical to call on your lawmakers and demand they increase access to the safe, affordable housing that seniors deserve.

Jeff Davis is CFO and senior vice president of Presbyterian Senior Living. The Dillsburg-based nonprofit provides services to roughly 6,000 seniors at 30 locations in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Ohio.

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