July 14, 2008

Those on Fixed Incomes Squeezed By Inflation

By Larissa Theodore, Beaver County Times, Pa.

Jul. 13--William and Lucille Schmidt recently browsed the Pic 'N' Sav in Harmony Township for milk, fruit and other food essentials. It wasn't just the weekly senior discount that drew the Harmony couple to the store.

"We normally come on Tuesdays, not just for the discount," said William Schmidt, 82, who pushed a shopping cart.

Rising fuel costs have forced the couple to rethink their typical routine. Their fixed income has forced them to limit their driving and opt for closer-to-home shopping.

"We don't go places we used to go," Schmidt said. "We used to do a lot of running around with the car, but we don't do that anymore. The last couple of years with the price of gas, we shop in Leetsdale and Ambridge."

For older Americans, like the Schmidts, additional savings, no matter how small, amounts to a stretched dollar. Because while most families across the nation have been fraught with inflation, the demand on seniors and retirees -- whose Social Security and pension support arrives on a fixed amount each month -- to pay higher prices, particularly for gas and food, leaves nary enough to get by.

Lillian O'Block, 83, of Baden, for instance, won't travel farther than the Northern Lights Shopping Center on Route 65 and hasn't gone inside a Wal-Mart or K-Mart in months.

"What can you do," O'Block said.

Many retirees on fixed incomes have changed their habits, as inflation takes over their fixed incomes. In a recent survey, AARP reported 59 percent of Americans ages 65 and older were having more trouble paying for food, gas and medicine.

"We've started to hear from our members, and are hearing increasingly from them, they're starting to struggle now," said Ray Landis, an advocacy manager for AARP in Pennsylvania. "There's a real trepidation about what it's going to be like this winter when the utilities, oil, heat and really anything (kicks in)."

Donna Murphy, executive director of Circle of Friends, said during winter last year, seniors were talking about the cost of gas and home heating oil.

"It's decision-making time for everyone, but particularly for these people on a steady income," said Murphy, who has also seen a small decrease in visitors to area senior centers, though she couldn't pinpoint whether it was gas prices or vacation season.

The drop in senior center visitors equals a donation loss, which means programming cutbacks and finding alternative methods. Those who are able to make it are responsible for their own transportation. Anyone 65 and older can use the Beaver County Transit Authority's DART bus system, which now charges a $1.50 fee for each way, Murphy said. And those who drive their own vehicle, she's noticed, will often stop off at the grocery store on the way home. Murphy has also seen a change in family dynamics, with more and more seniors having children and grandchildren moving in their homes.

Others who work with seniors are also seeing the affects. Credit counseling agencies, who have traditionally dealt with younger clients, have seen more older people.

In the past year, 31 percent of clients who filed bankruptcy with Advantage Credit Counseling Service in Pittsburgh were 55 and older.

"We're seeing a definite increase this year especially in the amount of counseling sessions we're doing," said Kristen Garrett, ACCS public relations coordinator.

Last year, for example, 144 people over 62 had reverse mortgage counseling. But as of July 7, the number for this year had hit 328.

"That is definitely an indicator that seniors are feeling the pinch and tapping into the equity in their home," Garrett said.

Maj. Robert Carney, coordinator for Beaver County Salvation Army services, said many seniors are seeking out help with food and utilities.

"We have a lot of seniors coming in looking for assistance with utilities, gas and electric especially. And then up at the food bank, they tell me they're seeing more of them coming."

More than 200 seniors come to the Beaver Falls food bank alone, with more than 900 families being helped by the city's food pantries. Carney said food assistance is provided to 3,000 families countywide.


--Property Tax-Rent Rebate Program: The deadline to apply for the 2007 program was extended to Dec. 31. The program benefits eligible Pennsylvanians 65 and older; widows and widowers 50 and older; and people with disabilities 18 and older. Rebate forms are available online, by calling (888) 222-9190 or from the local area agency on aging.

--Food assistance: Food Stamp Program, local food pantries and soup kitchens

--Medical help: PACE and PACENET, offers help with prescription coverage. APPRISE, a free health insurance counseling program designed to help older Pennsylvanians with Medicare.

--Supplemental income: Experience Works, for those 55 and older, helps people finding jobs. Foster grand-parenting pays those who foster a child.

--Energy assistance: LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) assists people with low incomes with home energy needs.

--For information on these programs, contact the Beaver County Office on Aging: (724) 847-2262 or Ambridge area (724) 266-7701, or Rochester area (724) 728-7708.


To see more of Beaver County Times, Pa., or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.timesonline.com.

Copyright (c) 2008, Beaver County Times, Pa.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

For reprints, email [email protected], call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.