Senior Hunger by Lura Barber, Senior Policy Analyst, National Center for Benefits Outreach & Enrollment, at the National Council on Aging

May 30, 2013

Food banks and the aging services provider network share a common interest in helping hungry and economically insecure older adults access the public benefits for which they are eligible. In 2012, the National Council on Aging (NCOA) and our aging network partners helped more than 340,000 older adults and younger adults living with disabilities apply for and receive nearly $865 million in public benefits. These benefits include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as well as two programs that help make Medicare affordable: the Part D Low-Income Subsidy (LIS) and Medicare Savings Programs (MSPs).

In many communities, food banks are also working with NCOA's partner organizations, as a way to supplement traditional services. Access to SNAP, in particular, relieves some of the pressure that food banks are facing to provide food to a growing client population of older adults.

Senior Hunger and Economic Insecurity

Any discussion of senior hunger is incomplete without addressing the effects of economic insecurity among older adults. Despite the safety net provided by Social Security and Medicare, the truth is that nearly 1 in 3 older adults in America today is economically insecure, teetering on the brink of poverty. All it takes is a foreclosure, a medical emergency, or a spouse's death to leave these seniors struggling to pay for essentials like food, medicine, and healthcare.

Add to this the fact that consumers age 65 and over carry an average of $10,235 in card debt and are more likely to be unemployed for 99 weeks or longer than younger workers, and the picture can be very bleak, indeed.

Yet, despite their financial struggles and the outreach and education efforts of government agencies and community-based organizations, many older adults are unaware of the help that is out there, or are reluctant to apply for benefit programs. As a result, low-income and vulnerable older adults are leaving $20 billion of benefits on the table each year that could help them make ends meet, remain healthy, and stay in their homes.

Building Partnerships

The aging and anti-hunger networks will need to continue building collaborative partnerships if we are to reach the millions of hungry and economically insecure older adults in America. We will need to work together to meet seniors where they are most comfortable—whether that be an Area Agency on Aging, a senior center, or a food bank—and make sure that they receive holistic assistance from outreach to recertification.

There are several things that food banks can do to help older adults in their communities access public benefits. The National Center on Benefits Outreach and Enrollment at NCOA recommends the following best practices:

  • Partner with your local benefits counselors and aging service providers to make the most of your respective expertise.
  • Take into account all of a senior's needs--maximize value of SNAP help by linking with other core benefits for seniors.
  • Walk seniors through the process step-by-step, as they may need more help than younger clients. Seniors are also eligible to take deductions for out-of-pocket medical expenses over $35 (See our fact sheet at: This deduction can be very valuable, but requires additional paperwork that may be discouraging to a senior.
  • Streamline the assistance and referral process as much as possible to prevent confusion, frustration, and delays.
Additional training materials and fact sheet can be found at our website, The Administration on Aging's Eldercare Locator can help you connect with aging services providers in your community, and you can find out more about NCOA's work in your state through our interactive map.

Finally, if your food bank is planning events for Hunger Action Month, keep in mind that September is also Senior Center Month! Your local senior center might be willing to host a benefits outreach and enrollment event, a cooking demonstration, or a food distribution site. NCOA's National Institute for Senior Centers (NISC) can help you connect with senior centers in your community.

Lura Barber is a Senior Policy Analyst, National Center for Benefits Outreach & Enrollment, at the National Council on Aging.


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