A Crisis Beyond the Cuts: Help for New York’s Seniors Ebbs

| August 11, 2011 10:23 AM

The second Javier Osorio walked into Grace Moore’s Brooklyn apartment early on a mid-July morning, Moore started talking—about Tiger Woods, how to eat on $10 a day, a PBS show on the mysteries of the brain. Only when she took a breath did Osorio get to ask the question that is the crux of case management services: “How are you feeling today?”

New York City's senior centers avoided a disastrous budget cut this year. But the passing of that threat masks a subtler one: the gradual erosion of an array of services the city offers its elderly. Case manager Javier Osorio visits Grace Moore in her Brooklyn apartment. City Limits/Patrick Egan

Over the din of three oscillating fans fending off the deep summer heat, Moore, 77, said, with a wide, contented smile on her face, “I feel wonderful.”

The services Osorio and all case managers contracted by the city of New York’s Department for the Aging (DFTA) provide seem simple on the surface—arranging home-delivered meals, finding transportation, making sure bills get paid—yet they offer their 18,000 clients (with nearly 1,000 on the waiting list) across the city a valuable and much desired outcome: the chance to age at home, not in a nursing facility.

Each of the past few years, the city has cut case management funding, making it harder to keep the elderly healthier in their homes. That increases the likelihood that a senior will need a nursing home, which costs the state, via Medicaid, many thousands more per person than if he or she had managed to live at home. For 2010, the average annual cost of a semi-private room in a nursing home in New York is about $115,000, while most clients of elderly case management agencies survive on about $13,000 of services.

“Dollar for dollar, it makes sense for the city to do this,” says Bobbie Sackman, executive director for the Council for Senior Centers and Services, of the cuts to case management, because the city derives the savings while the state gets the bill for the increased nursing home usage. “But policy wise, human wise, system wise, living-in-the-city wise, we’re taking giant leaps backward.”

A history of help

For years, New York City did an admirable job of building a safety net of services for seniors flirting with poverty, according to advocates. Started in 1968 as a three-year trial program to provide discounted transportation, the Department for the Aging has since expanded to provide employment services, crime victims’ assistance, health and wellness help and much more, most of which is contracted out to community-based providers. The agency counts on state, city and private funding.

But the Bloomberg administration has cut senior services by $50 million dollars in the past few years, admittedly under extraordinarily trying budgetary pressures, having threatened to cut many millions more. The actual budget reductions deprive vulnerable New Yorkers of much-needed services; the threats scare the elderly, leaving them to wonder when their help will run out. For service providers, bracing for proposed cuts and dealing with real ones take away from the energy they devote to caring for the aging.

The annual rite of slashing elderly programs comes at the front end of a decades-long surge in the city’s senior population. The 2010 census revealed that the over-60 population in New York City increased by 155,000—more than a 12 percent increase—since 2000, to about 1.4 million total. By the year 2030, the total elderly population should sit north of 2 million.

If current figures hold steady, a third of that population will struggle financially, making them ideal candidates for city-funded services. Read the full post at City Limits.

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