Throughout my time working at B’nai B’rith, I have written about a variety of topics that impact older Americans, ranging from gun reform laws, climate change, health care, social security, student debt and so forth. However, in recent years, there are few topics that inspire as much passion as voting rights. I have written blogs entitled, “Long Lines at Polling Stations During a Pandemic: It’s Time to Expand Voting from Home” and “Seniors and Voter Identification Laws” both of which advocate for greater access for seniors to the ballot box.
As many people are aware, several states have started debating and passing legislation that further regulates older Americans’ access to voting. For example, Wisconsin, Texas, Florida and Georgia have all either passed or are debating legislation that will make voting problematic. Many of these bills reduce the number of drop boxes, make absentee voting more difficult, ban drive through voting, limit assistance at the polls and forbid election officials from sending unsolicited ballots to people’s homes.
A central theme for these bills is that people with mobility issues are going to have a more difficult time participating in our elections. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, about 11.2 million people age 65 and older have self-reported travel-limiting disabilities. Legislation that increases the likelihood seniors will have to needlessly wait online to vote will only discourage people from participating in our democracy.
For example, recently passed legislation by the Wisconsin legislature requires an “indefinitely confined” individual’s absentee ballots to be returned by a family member who lives in the state, if such a person exists. This still applies even if your only family member lives on the opposite side of the state. Governor Tony Evers has indicated he is likely to veto this legislation.
In Texas, legislators are debating making it a felony, punishable by jail time, to send absentee ballot applications to voters who didn’t request one. In the last election, Texas counties sent voters 65 and older mail-in ballots unprompted. Governor Greg Abbott has indicated that he intends to sign the final bill into law.
In Florida, a recently signed law restricts drop boxes from being open 24/7. Instead the drop boxes’ hours will coincide with a county’s early voting hours so the boxes can be monitored at all times. Also, some groups are concerned the law would prohibit them from passing out food and water to people in line to vote, so as to not influence voters.
While protecting the integrity of our elections is an important objective, evidence demonstrates voter fraud is not a problem in our country. According to the New York Times, after the 2020 election, they reached out to election officials in every state, and 49 states reported no “major voting issues.” While Texas didn’t formally respond, Harris County, the largest county in Texas, reported only a few small issues and indicated that “we had a very seamless election.”
In Georgia, the secretary of state’s office reported that, during our last presidential election, not one single case of fraud was discovered during an audit of over 15,000 absentee ballots.
Presently, these bills are being challenged in court. For instance, disability rights groups in Georgia are arguing that the state’s legislation violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Also, the Justice Department is suing Georgia on the grounds the law is discriminatory against Black voters.
In Florida, the Alliance for Retired Americans is joining with other groups to legally challenge the state’s new voting law. “This law will make it more difficult for millions of Florida citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote,” said Bill Sauers, president of the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans. “Older Floridians take the right to vote seriously, and we will fight any attempt to keep our voices from being heard.”
“These bills are in seek of a problem that does not exist in the state of Wisconsin,” said State Sen.. Melissa Agard, of Madison. “They’re making it harder for our friends and neighbors across the state to vote, especially our seniors, especially our people with disabilities, especially people of color.” This quote from Agard crystalizes the problem with the states’ decisions to enact new voting laws.
Why make it more difficult particularly for seniors and disabled Americans who are least able to vote when it seems clear that our elections are not being threatened by voter fraud?
During my time working at B’nai B’rith my boss, Mark Olshan—associate executive vice president of B’nai B’rith and director of the Center for Senior Services—references the “good old days,” in regards to affordable senior housing. Up until 2011, Congress routinely appropriated hundreds of million dollars a year for the construction of new units. In total about 400,000 senior housing units were built. Unfortunately, from 2011 to 2016 Congress stopped appropriating money for new construction. Fast forward to 2021, and Congress over the past several years has started allocating money again for new senior housing. While we appreciate the funding, it’s nowhere near the level of dollars from the “good old days.”
As politicos know, the White House and Congress are negotiating on infrastructure legislation, with the potential of making major investments in our country’s transportation systems, schools, high-speed broadband capabilities, affordable housing and more. As an affordable housing advocate, I appreciate the White House including housing as part of its infrastructure agenda. However, the White House and Congress need to ensure the final piece of infrastructure legislation signed by President Joe Biden includes money for senior housing.
The demand for senior housing is real and not going away. The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies projects that in 2038 the population of older adults who are low-income will be 7.9 million, up from 5.3 million in 2018. Furthermore, the center reports that only about a third of older adults who qualify for rental subsidy receive the assistance. There are millions of older adults who need housing assistance and are not getting the help.
Aside from infrastructure legislation, every year B’nai B’rith requests money for senior housing as part of the annual appropriations process. Like previous years, we are asking for $600 million for the construction of 6,700 new affordable senior housing units. A modest ask, given the desperate need for more housing. If 6,700 new units hit the market tomorrow, they would be rented in hours. Major investments in senior housing won’t go to waste.
Funding senior housing is more than just brick and mortar, it’s the people and amenities inside. For example, infrastructure legislation must include money for additional service coordinators. Service coordinators work at the properties and connect residents with services in the community that allow seniors to “age in place” and not move to more institutional facilities that will inevitably cost the government more money. In addition, legislation must have a broadband internet component. The pandemic highlighted the importance of the internet allowing seniors to communicate with family, friends and health care providers from the comforts of their homes. Even once the pandemic is over, seniors are an age cohort which suffer from social isolation and mobility issues, making broadband access even more critical.
Thankfully, there is movement on Capitol Hill to include senior housing as part of infrastructure. Chairwoman Maxine Waters of the House Financial Services Committee introduced a discussion draft entitled “Housing is Infrastructure Act of 2021,” which appropriated $2.5 billion dollars for senior housing and addresses the priorities I discussed above. Think about all the senior housing units, service coordinators and broadband access the program could afford with that type of additional funding.
The White House’s motto is “Build Back Better,” and we are pleased to see that affordable housing is part of that mantra. Hopefully, Congress and the Biden administration can reach a deal to get this badly needed legislation to the President’s desk. Given the appetite in our nation’s capital to spend billions of dollars on infrastructure, if we don’t make a serious investment in affordable senior housing, “If not now, when?”
Like many families, my parents are over 65, and were eligible for their COVID-19 vaccine in January. The day my folks were eligible, around five o’clock, my mom called exasperated that she couldn’t get an appointment through the telephone and the website was difficult to navigate. Consequently, I kept calling the hotline and refreshing the website for an hour. Eventually, I got through to an operator and my parents signed up. My parents are fairly tech savvy people, so it naturally begged the question, how are we going to get older adults vaccinated, especially ones who are not comfortable with computers? But more broadly, how has the pandemic changed seniors’ relationship with the internet?
According to the Older Adults Technology Services (OATS), 22 million seniors lack broadband internet at home. Just take a second and let that number sink in. Even before the pandemic, try and think about your home life without access to broadband. Now, throw in the pandemic, and it really makes you wonder how these seniors were able to take care of life’s necessities. This statistic might help explain why 25% of seniors are “socially isolated,” with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labeling social isolation a “serious public health risk.”
It’s not just social interactions which have been disrupted because of the pandemic. Life’s daily routines like shopping and going to the doctor have moved online. The market research firm NPD Group’s Checkout Tracking reports that seniors in 2020 spent 60% more money online than they did in the previous year.
Obviously, getting seniors registered online for the vaccine brings its own set of challenges, even for those with easy internet access. Becky Preve from New York’s Association on Aging reports that seniors often lack email addresses, printers and are resistant to sharing personal health information over the web. All of this makes registering older Americans through the internet problematic. Regarding the phone, many seniors are hearing impaired, making phone calls difficult.
Fortunately, there has been both a government and nonprofit response. Last year New York City distributed 10,000 tablets to seniors with complimentary training, and the State of Georgia’s Division of Aging Services used money appropriated in the CARES Act to get older adults connected to the internet. Nonprofit organizations like OATS trained 48,000 older Americans on navigating the internet throughout the pandemic. Recently, local Area Agencies on Aging assisted with signing up for vaccines. Also, New York’s Rockland County arranged a call center, allowing older adults to speak with an operator that places them on a vaccine waiting list and arranges transportation to the appointment. “Most of my seniors, especially my older, older adults, are very scared, anxious and frustrated with the inability to register unless they had a computer,” said Tina Cardoza-Izquierdo, the county’s aging office director. She indicated the office was, “getting inundated with calls from seniors who really didn’t know what to do and where to turn.”
Recently, OATS and the Humana Foundation released a report, “Aging Connected: Exposing the Hidden Connectivity Crisis for Older Adults,” that examines why millions of older adults still remain without the internet. Factors like disability, education level, geography, health status, immigration, income and race are important factors in determining connectivity for seniors. The report states:
“We found, using the most comprehensive data sets available and the most experienced researchers conducting analysis, that lack of home broadband correlated strongly with virtually all major categories of socioeconomic inequality. If you are over 65 and lack a high school diploma, live in poverty, are non-White or foreign-born, live alone, suffer from poor health or physical disability, are female, or live in a rural area, then digital privation is likely added to any burdens you endure. In a nation committed to promoting equal opportunity for our citizens and seeking to redress past and continuing injustices, the technology gap stands out as a force that divides us, leaving millions of vulnerable older adults without many of the benefits of the digital age.”
The report outlines four ways to bridge the digital divide with seniors. They suggest 1) Increasing awareness about the internet’s value 2) Prioritizing social equity and inclusion 3) Expanding affordable internet and 4) Producing programing tailored for older adults.
At the B’nai B’rith Center for Senior Services we advocate on behalf of our senior housing community on Capitol Hill. During our recent meetings we have been promoting internet expansion for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) affordable senior housing community. Specifically, we are requesting $100 million dollars to expand senior internet connectivity in 3,300 communities. We believe this funding will help residents better connect with medical providers, family, friends and building staff. Fortunately, some of B’nai B’rith’s sponsored properties have already been able to get internet throughout the buildings. For example, in Allentown, Pennsylvania and Tucson, Arizona, our properties have building-wide Wi-Fi, enabling residents to connect their phones, tablets, computers and televisions to the internet. In Tucson, residents are able to check out laptops from the office and use them from the comfort of their own apartments.
Everyone should have access to broadband internet. The web has become a necessity and not a nicety. The pandemic has spotlighted the digital divide for seniors regarding internet connectivity. Hopefully, as we emerge from the pandemic, seniors will be afforded more opportunities for better internet access.
The past year has been difficult for everyone. Holidays, birthdays and anniversaries have all been scaled back because of the pandemic. People have searched everywhere for hope. Then in December, the first COVID-19 vaccine was administered in the United States. Finally we could see light at the end of the tunnel and every day the light has grown stronger.
Unfortunately, people are always ready to take advantage of good news. Last year I wrote a blog called “COVID-19 Senior Scams: Yes It Can Get Lower,” outlining how seniors during the pandemic are more susceptible to scams. Currently, we are racing to vaccinate everyone, and seniors rightfully have been one of the first in line. While this is great news, vaccinations have created opportunities for scams. For example, scammers are approaching older Americans offering early access to the vaccine, requesting payment for access and claiming they can send the vaccine directly to their homes. Seniors should be aware that these “claims” and “offers” are signs of scams. Also, scams are being furthered through text messages, social media platforms, house visits and phone calls.
Over the past couple of months, government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have all issued warnings advising people of COVID-19 vaccine scams. On Feb. 19 the CDC released guidance called “What Older Adults Need to Know about COVID-19 Vaccines” that stated, “If anyone asks you to pay for access to vaccine, you can bet it’s a scam. Don’t share your personal or financial information if someone calls, texts or emails you promising access to the vaccine for an extra fee.”
In Maine, the state’s CDC reported people have been impersonating agency employees claiming to be contacting them about contact tracing or to double-check vaccine appointments to fraudulently request Social Security numbers. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maine released a statement in January that scammers were trying to use the vaccine as an excuse to get access to people’s money, Social Security numbers and other personal identifying information.
“These scammers are ruthless and relentless, and everyone needs to have their guard up,” said U.S. Attorney Halsey Frank. “People here in Maine, particularly the elderly, are desperate to get vaccinated as quickly as possible, and the con artists are exploiting that desperation to get access to their money and personal information.”
At B’nai B’rith, our training programs have provided information on scam awareness. For example, during the pandemic we relayed and explained government guidance from various federal agencies on scams associated with the vaccine, stimulus payments, contact tracing and testing. As a sponsor of Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) senior housing across the country it’s important we communicate the most updated information to buildings for the betterment of residents.
Hopefully, sooner than later everyone can get back to spending time with family and friends. However, in the meantime let’s all be vigilant against people who are taking advantage of the pandemic, especially now with our country taking a turn for the better. Plus, it can never hurt to call your senior loved ones and remind them to be a little more aware of what’s going on.
Throughout the course of the pandemic, federal, state and local governments have been instituting eviction moratoriums to stop people from becoming homeless. While I commend these efforts, what about the people who are already homeless? At B’nai B’rith we sponsor senior housing, so naturally I’m curious about how prevalent homeless seniors are across the country.
The Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) shows there are over 170,000 older adults (55+) who are homeless. These numbers are only expected to increase to 225,000 by 2026. Obviously, no one wants to see anyone homeless, and we want everyone to live in secure and safe housing. However, the problems associated with homelessness shouldn’t be examined as just putting a roof over someone’s head, but how appropriately health care and housing are intertwined.
The Homelessness Policy Research Institute reports homeless older adults are more likely to have health issues compared to older adults with housing. Research demonstrates ailments associated with seniors like frailty, cognitive impairment, urinary incontinence and vision impairment are higher in homeless older adults compared to people 20 years older with housing. Complicating matters, too many homeless seniors are not even aware they are eligible for Medicare and Medicaid benefits. According to the 2018 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, only 10 percent of homeless adults in Los Angeles receive Medicare benefits. Think about all the undiagnosed ailments and health care problems plaguing seniors that could be treated from the outset. Furthermore, it’s generally cheaper to treat medical problems if they are diagnosed early.
So, what does this all mean?
The University of Pennsylvania published a report, “The Emerging Crisis of Aged Homelessness: Could Housing Solutions Be Funded by Avoidance of Excess Shelter, Hospital and Nursing Home Costs?” that tackles these very questions. The study concluded that investments in housing for older adults could save money by decreasing health care, nursing home and shelter costs. The report states:
“However, that large sums of public funding will go toward this crisis whether we act or not should motivate us to find the best and most responsible use of those funds. We can spend those dollars on potentially unnecessary hospital and nursing home days, or we can improve the quality of life of these vulnerable citizens, reduce the daily demands on hospitals and emergency departments to care for them, and relieve shelters of the burden for large-scale, aging-related care for which they are ill-suited.”
Furthermore, the study demonstrated that investments in a comprehensive housing strategy in New York and Los Angeles could save millions of dollars in services and produce positive investments.
The good news is that elected officials have begun to act. Last year, Minnesota created a program called “Housing Stabilization Services,” funded through Medicaid to help people find housing, negotiate leases and stave off evictions by identifying issues before they become too problematic. The goal for the program is to reach 7,000 people during the first three years. While this program is a good start, the Medicaid benefits don’t pay for rent.
Working at B’nai B’rith has made me very aware of the supply of affordable housing versus the demand in this country. While we regularly advocate to Congress for additional funding, our work doesn’t stop there. Our annual Housing Conference and Managers and Service Coordinators Meeting has provided training and panel discussions on welcoming new members to our housing community who previously were homeless. This came about because we recognized that the elderly homeless are at even more risk due to fragile health, etc. and wanted to make sure that we are reaching out to a very vulnerable population that can benefit from living in Housing and Urban Development (HUD) assisted housing with service coordination available to them. Whether it’s dispelling stereotypes or connecting people with supportive services, we want everyone to feel welcomed and succeed in their new surroundings.
For example, Goldberg B’nai B’rith Towers in Houston and Pasadena Interfaith Manor have implemented the HUD homeless preference program that allows people without a home to more easily find a place to live. The staff at the buildings have treated these residents equally and the partnership with HUD has worked nicely. Also, caseworkers help prospective residents fill out paperwork, move into the apartments and assist with other daily activities associated with being a renter.
The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University reports that by 2038, 2.4 million more seniors who are considered very low income won’t have access to affordable housing. Numbers don’t lie. Senior homelessness is only going to become a bigger problem. This means money is being spent on services alone when housing is a more dignified and cheaper response. It’s time to take a more wholistic approach to providing services for people and see that issues like homelessness and health care are connected.
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