Getting older comes with a certain set of cultural expectations, rooted in our idealized sense of essential fairness. You work hard, perhaps you raise children, you have a decent old age, and you leave the world a little better than when you found it. Even just the price of human life—the struggles, heartbreaks, and quotidian day-to-day—seem to be justification for contentment toward the end.
What we don’t expect is hunger.
But for millions of older adults, and many more each year, food insecurity and daily hunger is a real issue. Not knowing where their next meal is coming from is a gnawing fear. The fastest-growing group of food-insecure people is older adults, in a way that should shock our sensibilities.
As we recognize World Food Day 2017 on October 16th, we must ask ourselves: Why are older adults at risk for food insecurity? What has happened that old age has become a time of fear after the progress we’ve made over the last few generations? And how can we reverse that?
No one deserves to be hungry. Together, we can fight it, for every age group.
Why Are Older Adults at Risk for Food Insecurity? Old and New Causes
The main cause of food insecurity among older adults in the United States is, not surprisingly, related to finances. For most of American history, and indeed for most of human history, getting older meant a decline in productivity, which meant a decline in earnings. If you were not fortunate enough to have been able to save money during your life, old age meant poverty.
In 1934, more than half of senior citizens were estimated to be living below the poverty line. This meant having to live with family if they were around—and in America, blessed with mobility, family often wasn’t. That meant the cruel tragedy of the anonymous poorhouse, where a life of memories and love and laughter ended too often alone.
Social awareness and the blessings of Social Security changed that. By 2000, the elderly poverty rate was just at 10%. It is estimated that without Social Security, 43.5% of older adults would be poor, with the numbers rising to 51% of African Americans and 52% of Latinos.
But even with that, recent economic shocks have taken their toll. The combination of the market collapse in 2008, which wiped out the savings of many seniors (many of whom cashed out a 401(k) hoping to salvage some savings) and the sheer increasing number of retiring Boomers, have been the major factors of this growth.
How Many Older Adults Are at Risk for Food Insecurity?
These statistics show just how many older adults are or could be affected by food insecurity now and in the future:
- From 2001-2014, the number of seniors facing food insecurity has doubled.
- One-third of senior citizens have no money left after each month’s essential spending.
- One in 11 seniors faces hunger each day.
- 10 million older Americans are unsure where their next meal is coming from.
- The number of seniors in America is expected to double by 2040.
That last statistic isn’t incidental. More seniors means a higher number of people who need help. And there are limited resources to help. That means we must support the resources that are around to help. Part of that is raising awareness.
World Food Day is the perfect time to do so.
Recognizing Food Security in Older Adults on World Food Day
Today, October 16th, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is working with governments, non-governmental organizations, the private sector, and others to promote food security and stability. The theme this year is to “Invest In Food Security And Rural Development.” The heart of it is to change migration, as most people migrate due to lack of food, but it can also apply in communities like the Bay Area.
The first step is to recognize that food insecurity hurts everyone, whether you are old or young, and whether you have all the food you need or not enough. If we are to be a society that values justice, we must invest in food security.
We can use this day to highlight the issue, but it doesn’t stop there. Here are some steps you can take to help combat food insecurity among older adults:
- Talk to your social circles about food insecurity among older adults. Many may not be aware of this growing tragedy, and when they are, they may be moved to help.
- Advocate for people facing food insecurity. The Alliance to End Hunger is a network of relief groups, advocates, and nonprofits that work to change legislation and find solutions to hunger.
- Volunteer in groups that distribute food and help people who may be isolated. Many older adults are among the most hard-working volunteers. No matter your age, you can help your peers in need. If you need help finding a volunteer opportunity, feel free to reach out to Institute on Aging. We offer volunteer opportunities or may be able to connect you with groups or individuals working to reduce hunger among older adults.
- Volunteer at or donate to a Bay Area food bank. Bay Area Hunger has a list of food banks that always needs people, funds, and goods. It’s a tangible way to make a difference.
Too many older adults face the wrenching pain of food insecurity alone. Many don’t have a network of friends or family they can turn to. Many are alone and isolated. And many feel ashamed, thinking that misfortune is some kind of judgment or that they have failed.
This isn’t the case. As a society, we have failed them. But we can do better. This October 16th, raise awareness of this growing plague and take steps in your area to fight it. Together, we can make the later parts of life as full and as fulfilling as everything that came before.
At Institute on Aging, our mission is to help older adults thrive while aging at home. We offer services, including home care and financial services, as well as other programs, to help aging adults do just that. Contact us today to learn more.