Garden State’s No Rose Garden to Grow Old In, Advocates Tell Lawmakers

Colleen O'Dea, Senior writer | January 28, 2020 | Social
At first meeting of Senior Services Committee, legislators explore myriad problems facing seniors, from age discrimination at work to unaffordable housing
Credit: Elisa Paolini via Flickr
There are challenges regardless of whether seniors are in the workforce or retired, live on their own or in a long-term care facility.

More than half of New Jersey’s senior citizens can’t afford to live in the state, according to one measure. And older adults also may face fraud victimization, age discrimination and physical abuse, according to advocates who gave lawmakers considering senior issues an earful on Monday. 

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) created a new Senior Services Committee to deal with issues specific to older residents. On the first day lawmakers conducted business in the new legislative session, that committee held what was essentially a factfinding mission, with close to a dozen advocates discussing both services available to seniors and problems they are facing.

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), committee chair, said the separate body looking at senior issues is important, especially as the state’s senior population continues to grow. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that more than 2 million New Jerseyans were 60 and older — close to 23% of the population in 2018 — and 16%, or 1.4 million, were 65-plus. The senior population has risen 20% since 2010, while the total state population increased by just 1%. 

Dealing with the ‘silver tsunami’

“I think because we are facing that silver or grey tsunami today, I think it is so important that we really do need a separate committee,” said Huttle, adding that because senior issues used to fall under the auspices of the health committee in the Assembly they “got swallowed up” by general health topics. The hearing “really gave us an overview of the obstacles and challenges that are facing our adult population that is aging.” 

There are challenges regardless of whether seniors are in the workforce or retired, live on their own or in a long-term care facility. And while low-income seniors have the greatest needs, even middle- or higher-income seniors can face problems because costs can be so high that they quickly exhaust savings. 

Melissa Chalker, executive director of the New Jersey Foundation for Aging, said that financial insecurity is a problem for more than half of the seniors here. About 8% have incomes below the poverty level, and 30% rely only on Social Security, which averages $18,065 a year. Yet the most recent Elder Index calculated by the Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging at the University of Massachusetts Boston found that a senior renter needs at least $29,616 to afford to live in this state.  

Falling into the gap

“More than half — 54% — of New Jersey’s seniors do not have the annual income needed to provide for their basic needs,” she said. “These are the older adults that we refer to as being ‘in the gap.’ That gap is having income too high to qualify for government programs, but too low to adequately cover basic expense.” 

Several speakers mentioned the cost of housing, in particular, as a problem, and some said that as more seniors are facing homelessness and turn to shelters, they can’t handle the new population. 

“The cots are too low, they can’t get down to sleep on them, and then at 8 a.m. they get thrown out into the cold,” said Maureen Bergeron, Camden County’s director of senior and disabled services.

Low-income seniors can wind up choosing between paying for medications or eating and may not apply for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, because of the stigma attached or because the application seeks so much detailed information for a relatively small benefit — as little as $16 per month. 

But older adults in the workforce can also face problems, said Stephanie Hunsinger, state director for AARP in New Jersey. Workers 65 and older make up a large and growing part of the workforce but are the “least protected” workers in the state, she said. 

“Our ability to live longer, healthier, more productive lives is one of humankind’s greatest accomplishments,” she said. But “attitudes and stereotypes about aging haven’t changed.” 

Age discrimination on the job

Hunsinger said that three of five workers report seeing or experiencing age discrimination. She called for passage of a bill (A-681) sponsored by Huttle. That measure would end the practice of allowing many public employers to force workers to retire at 70 and allowing businesses to refuse to hire or promote a worker age 70 or older.  

 She also called for tax and savings changes to help adults to afford to age in New Jersey. 

“One of the things people care most about as they are living longer is that they will outlive their money,” Hunsinger said. “Unfortunately, this fear is a very real one. “ 

She called on the state to implement the Secure Choice Retirement Savings Program enacted last year “swiftly and well” so that the 1.8 million workers in the state without access to a retirement program will have a way to save. 

Seniors who are not living on their own but are in a group or institutional setting face problems ranging from abuse and neglect to threats of being forced out of a place where they have lived comfortably when they have exhausted all their savings. That’s because only Medicaid covers long-term care costs, and many facilities reserve only a small proportion of beds — 10% by law — for Medicaid recipients. 

Laurie Facciarossa Brewer, New Jersey’s long-term care ombudsman, said she has a staff of 10 investigators and 220 volunteer ombudsmen to handle a rising number of complaints — an estimated 9,000 in the 2019 fiscal year. Those led to the office opening some 3,600 cases, ranging from physical or sexual abuse to involuntary discharges to not allowing visitation. She said virtually all complaints stem from the same cause. 

“Nearly all the complaints that we receive — residents developing pressure sores, falling, losing weight, being verbally or physically mistreated — boil down to the fact there are simply not enough qualified staff there to help residents with their most basic needs,” she said. “Another issue is cost-cutting by facilities. When a long-term care facility comes under new corporate management, basic services can decline.” 

Not enough nursing assistants

Theresa Edelstein, senior vice president with the New Jersey Hospital Association, said there are not enough people working in the field, particularly as certified nursing assistants, and the recruitment strategies that used to work well, such as signing bonuses, don’t because people can work in retail or service jobs for similar pay.  

“We are in quite a bind,” she said. “We must engage educators, community and civic organizations, the Department of Labor, government partners and others in a strategic way to make sure we have a passionate and compassionate workforce.” 

Facciarossa said another issue they deal with is involuntary discharge from assisted-living facilities, which can cost between $5,000 and $10,000 a month, once a person has “spent down all their private funds at the facility” and must turn to Medicaid. 

“In many cases, these residents and families were assured when they were admitted that they would be able to age in place,” she said, adding that if the state commits more funding for long-term care it should be directed to help residents “rather than bolstering the facilities’ bottom line.” 

Like other speakers, Edelstein said that requiring people to spend all their money and then turn to Medicaid to pay for long-term care, or cobble together help from family and friends while living at home, is not the best system but any solution is going to be complicated. 

“Until we have a national policy conversation, we have to figure out how we’re going to address this in New Jersey,” she said. 

Huttle also said she was grateful to hear from officials with the Department of Human Services who described  a number of the programs offered to help seniors, including NJSAVE, which is a streamlined online application for a host of assistance programs that help seniors save money on prescriptions and Medicare premiums and provide heating assistance and food aid. Louise Rush, director of the state Division of Aging Services, said these benefits can save seniors as much as $3,000 a year.  

“I was not really aware of all the department does,” Huttle said. “The services are there, but we need to have that communicated to our community.”  

And she expects more measures will result from the committee’s ongoing work, saying, “we are here to hopefully help resolve some of these issues through legislation.”