by Rodney Brooks. This article originally appeared in USA TODAY.
An array of health and financial problems converge on African Americans as they age, posing a potentially devastating impact on them.
Blacks are more likely than whites to suffer medical conditions that lead to more severe health problems and higher health care and insurance costs as they grow older.
Their health problems are exacerbated by financial troubles that include lower savings, homeownership rates and Social Security income than whites.
“It’s a huge issue,” says Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, CEO of Global Policy Solutions, a Washington, D.C., social-change strategy firm. “Over our working life we experience pay disparities, have little wealth in our families and often support others.”
“By the time we reach an age when chronic diseases catch up with us, we are … dropping out of the workforce and relying on disability or taking early Social Security retirement,” she says.
That means difficult choices for low-income African American seniors, says Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of AARP Foundation. “If they pay their mortgage, can they buy medicine? If they buy medicine, can they buy food?”
Among the findings from a CIGNA Health Disparities report:
- Four in 10 African American men aged 20 or older have high blood pressure, a rate 30 percent higher than that of white men, and their risk of a stroke is twice that for white men. For black women, 45% who are 20 and older have high blood pressure, a rate 60 percent higher than that for white women.
- African American women are 40% more likely to die of breast cancer than white women.
- Black men have a 40% higher cancer death rate than white men.
- African Americans are 80 percent more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than non-Hispanic whites, and nearly twice as likely to be hospitalized.
- Blacks are more than twice as likely as whites to suffer from Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia.
Dealing with the costs of these illnesses is an additional burden, says Cummings.
“I think the stress of racism, sexism, poverty and the grind of having to figure out how to make ends meet on a daily basis creates a confluence of pressures that are disproportionately borne by disadvantaged communities, especially communities of color,” she says.
A new report from Prudential Financial details the income and wealth shortcomings of blacks:
- Higher-income whites have saved six times more money than higher-income blacks.
- Fifty-seven percent of black households have no retirement savings, compared to 44 percent of the general population. Among those with retirement savings, the average for black households is $23,000, vs. $154,000 for white households.
- Only a third of blacks own homes, compared to 58 percent of the general population.
Nick Abrams, a financial planner based in Baltimore, says that not only do African-Americans make less money than their white counterparts, but they don’t get help from older generations, who have no wealth accumulation to pass onto them. “We’re starting over with each generation. They are not inheriting or transferring funds to help with expenses as family members get older,” he says.
An additional financial strain comes from the need by many African-American women to raise their grandchildren or care for other ill family members, a role that may force them to quit their jobs, says Cummings. “That has a devastating impact.”
“The burden is not just on the person who is sick but also other family members,” says Abrams. “How do you pay for someone to take care of an adult family member? Do you have money for assisted living or for a nursing home? A nursing home in this area can cost $10,000 to $12,000 a month. It can wipe out a nest egg.”
Cummings says the financial pressures exert a physical and emotional toll that lead to shorter life expectancies. “There is direct linkage between stress and the behaviors that lead to chronic conditions that undermine longevity and health.
To help improve the finances of older African Americans, Ryerson says one AARP Foundation program called Work for Yourself@50+ has been successful putting low-income seniors back into the job market. She also cites the Senior Community Service Employment Program funded through the Older Americans Act that helps employ unemployed lower-income adults 55 and over.
Rooks says remaining active into retirement years, whether working or volunteering in the community, is important to keep healthy as well as to help with expenses.
“Volunteering and working has some positive impact on health,” she says. “Remaining active keeps you involved socially, but also improves your physical and mental health.”
This article was written with support from the Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations and AARP.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.