An older adult at the National Hispanic Council on Aging’s (NHCOA’s) community forum in Miami was frustrated at the difficulty of her life and those of peers. “Why,” she exclaimed, “in the richest country in the world can we not eat three meals a day?” It was a direct statement of the plight of Hispanic older adults that NHCOA heard over and over again as the organization spoke with seniors and their caregivers across the country. Hispanic seniors, they heard, were simply not able to make ends meet. Their low fixed incomes simply did not cover the monthly expenses of rent, food and medical needs. Seniors were deferring medications to cover meals and not eating meals to cover medications. They were going through trash bins. They were eating cat food. They were hungry and malnourished and they were in desperate straits.
The national statistics bear out these stories from the field. Hispanics face the highest level of food insecurity and hunger of any group in the nation. Almost one-quarter (23.7%) of Hispanic households face food insecurity, with 6.7% of these households facing very high food insecurity which is defined as when at least one member of the household’s eating is disrupted. More specifically, 18% of Hispanic older adults nationwide are food insecure.
The implications of food insecurity and hunger among vulnerable groups in a population (such as seniors) are severe. In the case of older adults, those who are food insecure are at increased risk for chronic health conditions, even when the data are controlled for other factors. For example, 60% of food-insecure seniors are at greater risk for depression and 53% are at greater risk of a heart attack. Food-insecure seniors are also 52% more likely to develop asthma and 40% more likely to report an episode stemming from congestive heart failure.
The U.S. has a number of safety net programs to help those facing food insecurity and hunger. The most prominent of these is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or food stamps and senior center food programs. Diverse older adults, including Hispanic seniors, often find it difficult to access these programs because of deep linguistic and cultural disconnects with service providers. Hispanic older adults often find it extremely difficult to apply for, and navigate, programs for which they are eligible because of linguistic and cultural gaps and low levels of formal education, making it necessary for service providers to assist them step-by-step in a culturally and linguistically appropriate manner.
NHCOA recommends a number of measures to bridge these cultural gaps. The first of these is ensuring that the federal standards for linguistic competency are followed among service providers in federal programs. The second recommendation is a broad effort to educate diverse seniors nationwide about the programs, which can alleviate food insecurity and hunger. The third is one that is almost universally recommended by Hispanic older adults in communities nationwide. This is job and small business management training for Hispanic seniors who are able to work so that they can enter the workforce as a way to supplement their income and make ends meet. Finally, Hispanic seniors nationwide also recommended personal financial management training for younger generations so that they would enter retirement with savings and sufficient retirement funds to ensure that they could live in security.
Senior food insecurity and hunger is a serious problem nationwide, but it is especially severe among diverse seniors, including Hispanics. Our seniors have spent their lives working to support their families, communities and nation. They deserve to enjoy their golden years free of hunger and food insecurity. Together, we can ensure that programs designed to alleviate hunger and food insecurity better serve our nation’s diverse seniors, by providing them access to benefits for which they are eligible
The 2015 State of Hispanic Older Adults: Recommendations from the Field report was possible thanks to the support of Abbott, AbbVie, Aetna Foundation, Anthem, AstraZeneca, DHHS Office of Minority Health, John A. Hartford Foundation, Lilly, Pfizer, PhRMA, Univision, Verizon, and Walmart.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.