A variety of issues that specifically affect the elderly population in the state of Arkansas was the topic of discussion at Monday's (Feb. 10) League of Women Voters meeting in Fort Smith.
Panelists addressed how league members and residents could assist in a variety of different areas — food insecurity among the elderly, dealing with Alzheimer's disease and preparing legal documents for the elderly.
Ken Kupchick, director of marketing and development at the River Valley Regional Food Bank, said a common problem among individuals older than 75-years-old is not having enough food. Recent moves by the U.S. Congress, including the passage of a new Farm Bill that cuts the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) by about $800,000 every year for the next decade, have made food insecurity an even larger issue as many are struggling to make ends meet while also having food to eat.
"The bigger problem in Arkansas is actually getting seniors to enroll in SNAP in the first place," he said. "The participation rates in the state over all (is) at about 73-77% of those eligible. But when it comes to those seniors, that drops to under 50% and one of the things we need to do is get more seniors into the SNAP program, which only exacerbates the problem all the more (when budgets have been cut)."
According to Kupchick, a large reason seniors do not sign up for a program like SNAP even when they are in need is because of a supposed stigma associated with what their generation may consider to be "welfare." He said others may not enroll because they do not assume that they will get enough to make a dent in their monthly grocery budgets.
"Many of them think they'll only get about $16 a month, which is the minimum qualification," he said. "But if you reverse that and say, 'Hey, coupon clipper. How would you like $16 worth of free groceries at the grocery store?' every senior would grab them. We have to fix that problem more so than we have to worry about the take away. It's getting more enrollment."
Kupchick said programs to help seniors, such as SNAP, should be promoted to seniors not only to make sure they stay fed and healthy, but also to promote economic development in the community. He said while his group gave away $12.7 million worth of food in 2013, some economists he had spoken with place the economic impact of those food giveaways at $22 million due to seniors and other food recipients being able to pay their rent on time and being able to afford other items, as well.
Melissa Curry of the Arkansas Alzheimer's Association was also on hand to discuss ways caregivers can provide assistance to those battling the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.
It is an issue Curry said is vital for caregivers and patients, as an estimated 65% of caregivers die before patients "because it's so mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually draining. So that's why we're trying to help right now, the Alzheimer's Association, to give them that support."
She advised individuals to contact her organization for help finding resources to not only care for a loved one, but also to get emotional support for themselves. Among the help her group could provide is connecting caregivers with organizations that can provide financial assistance for medical care, such as the Veterans Administration for veterans and their widows, or signing patients up for Medicaid.
Curry also advised audience members to know what the warning signs of Alzheimer's are and to find ways to deal with the disease and the affected patient without stripping them of their dignity. Among the tips is writing a list of concerns to share with doctors or nurses at upcoming appointments instead of discussing the issues right in front of the patient, or having a doctor notify a patient that their condition makes them unsafe to drive a vehicle instead of the caregiver simply taking away the keys.
As seniors move from healthy and independent to needing assistance or simply closer to the end of their lives, attorney Todd Whatley of The Elder Law Practice said it was important to get legal documents in order such as power of attorney. He also answered questions from the audience on issues such as how funding long-term could happen, whether an individual has Alzheimer's or some other ailment.
"If the person is broke, the person with Alzheimer's is broke, and their income is below the limit…then Medicaid will provide some care during the day, whatever they decide she needs, they will then come in and provide that care."
He said should a long-term nursing facility be needed, families can rent out an individual's home and use the rent generated to pay for medical costs, even as Medicaid is funding the remaining amount.
Whatley also said families in need of legal assistance should call on a firm that specializes in senior care, such as The Elder Law Practice. If finances are an issue, he said, those families can get legal assistance from other groups, as well, including the Alzheimer's Association.
And while there are programs available to provide assistance, the key to seniors being able to tackle their golden years is preparation, Kupchick said, again specifically addressing food insecurity.
"If you're not entering into your retirement years with enough safe guards, you're definitely going to be amongst the food insecure. And what we find here is if you've lived your life in low-income situations, if you didn't graduate from high school, if you remained a renter most of your life, if you are one minority or another, if you live in the South, if you're living alone or if you raised a grandchild — all of these things impact your food insecurity as we age."