Troubled Waters

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On January 16, President Obama declared a federal emergency in Flint, Michigan due to high levels of lead in the city’s water supply that occurred after the city switched its source of water from the City of Detroit to the Flint River as a cost savings measure in 2014.  In addition to lead, Flint’s water supply has tested positive for fecal matter and disinfectant byproducts.

While much attention has been focused on the impact of the water on Flint’s children, older people have also been harmed.  The 50+ population comprises about 30% (nearly 30,000 people) of the city, according to the U.S. Census. Older adults have claimed that drinking Flint’s water has caused them to have health effects such as skin lesions, hair loss, high levels of lead in the blood, vision loss, memory loss, depression and anxiety. Low-income people have been disproportionately impacted by the crisis because residents with higher incomes were able to purchase water from an alternate source, as city water had taken on a brown color and an unappetizing smell after the switch.  More than 40% of the city’s population lives in poverty.

Based on my research and a number of meetings I’ve attended regarding the impact of the water crisis on older people, three key areas of need seem to exist:

Limited Water and Water Filters:  Households are only able to receive one free package of water bottles at a time.  Additionally, each household only receives one water filter (the filters fit on a faucet), leaving additional water sources (e.g. bathroom shower and sink) unfiltered. Furthermore, it is often difficult for older adults to install the filter themselves. When they ask for assistance, they often face long delays.  Recent testing also indicates the filters may not have the capacity to make water safe for drinking in neighborhoods with especially high lead levels.

Poor Infrastructure:  The existing healthcare infrastructure in Flint is overburdened; there is not significant open medical capacity to test or treat patients.  Additionally, Flint’s public transportation system is not well developed, and some families are forced to use public transportation in order to pick up water, which can be burdensome.  Although there are volunteers delivering water to vulnerable populations, some older people are afraid to allow volunteers into their home to deliver water or replace filters due to threats of crime and fraud.

Needs of Grandparents:  There are many multigenerational households and grandparents raising grandchildren in Flint, and children are most likely to face long-term impact from the lead.  Older family members often lack knowledge and resources to help younger family members.

If you are interested in helping those impacted by the water crisis in Flint, the United Way of Genesee County has created the Flint Water Fund, which is raising money to deliver water and filters in the community.  Additionally, if you live in the Washington, DC area, I will be teaching a special yoga class at Yoga Heights in Petworth at noon on Saturday, June 18 to raise money for the Flint Water Fund.  I will post more information about this event as it becomes available.

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Small Gestures

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Dad and I at the cancer treatment center on his last day of in-patient treatment

My father’s cancer came out of remission in January. Even though it was fairly obvious my dad was having health problems—over New Year, his weight seemed to have reached a new low and his voice had become significantly quieter—the news was still jarring.

February and March both included visits to be with dad at a cancer treatment center near Chicago. My mom still works and couldn’t be with dad for the entirety of his treatment, so I flew up to keep him company and lend a hand where I could. I was there with him when he received his final in-patient treatment. He and mom spent the last week in Florida, enjoying the warmth as he regained his appetite, now that the big part of his chemo and radiation treatments is over.

The one thing that really surprised me over the past months was how helpful and comforting I found the kind words of others. I am the sort of person who feels uncomfortable expressing strong emotions. And I’ve always been reserved when asking about difficult situations that impact others. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that I am afraid that by asking how they’re doing or expressing my sadness for them, I might open their wounds, embarrass them, or cause an emotional scene.

Being on the other side, I was surprised at how touching I found the words of others. Friends who took the time to ask how my dad was doing, share food with me, or tell me about their own experiences buoyed me on many occasions. Even conversations about my dad’s situation with relative strangers, a taxi driver or a woman from yoga class, left me feeling more hopeful about the future.

From this experience, I’ve become more mindful that small gestures have the power to help others who are feeling down. I hope that in the future I’ll be less worried about saying the wrong thing and more confident that my words and deeds can be a source of comfort to those facing difficulty.

Conversations for Innovation

“I watched my Mom’s life get smaller and smaller as she lost her mobility. She lived out on a farm and getting into town to visit friends, see her doctor, and buy groceries just kept getting harder. I helped out as much as I could, but she lived a few hours from me. Now that I’m getting older, I know that I don’t want that. I want to live someplace where it’s easy to see people and get the things I need. My husband though, he wants to live in the country. He thinks the grandkids would love to visit us and play in the woods. I just don’t know about that…”

I was spending my day at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Chantilly, Virginia, talking to customers about their relationships with their houses and what they hoped for from their homes as the got older. Some wanted stay right where they were, others hoped to move to warmer climates. Some planned to simplify their lives by downsizing to smaller quarters, others felt bigger is better and hoped to retire to a larger home in a cheaper location. One woman in her fifties, recently divorced, had just moved across the country to share a home with her best friend from high school.  One woman, shopping for plumbing supplies, said the words that I captured above.

These conversations were part of a Human-Centered Design exercise in which a large number of AARP Foundation staff participated. Over the course of a couple of months, we went out to senior centers, public housing for older people, and grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods, among other locations across the country to talk to lower-income older adults about the problems they face as they age. After gathering insights from these conversations, staff came back to headquarters to create solutions for the vulnerable, older population.

At AARP Foundation, talking to the people we help is an integral part of serving others. Not only does it allow us to better understand the problems they face, but it also forces us to see and respect them as human beings rather than as statistics or data points. While data and research are helpful for understanding the scope of a problem, talking to people, face-to-face, about their own personal struggles, fears and dreams allows us to truly respect their story and ensures we offer them options that protect their dignity and autonomy.

I was honored to be part of a training last week to teach me to better incorporate Human-Centered Design and other strategies for innovation into my work. For the next fourteen weeks, I will be working with a team of four other “innovation champions” to implement these strategies and hopefully identify new programs and products to improve the lives of low-income older adults. I’m very excited for this opportunity. I’m also hopeful that through this project I will not only learn to implement strategies to create innovations but also that I will learn more about vulnerable older people so that my team’s work can help them live their best possible lives.

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Giving Credit to Volunteer Tax Preparers

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It sounds kind of odd, but one of the first tasks on my New Year’s “to do” list is to complete my taxes.  I have a number of friends who have had unexpected tax problems over the past few years, requiring them to cough up significant amounts of money for Uncle Sam with very little notice.  These second-hand experiences have had the result of making me fairly paranoid about my taxes, and so January has become my official month for figuring out where I stand with the taxman and making myself aware of any potential problems before the IRS comes a-knocking.

Many of older adults also have trouble completing their taxes, as the literacy requirements and technical knowledge needed to fill-out income tax forms are fairly high.  On top of that, the cost of using a tax preparation services can seem exorbitant to older people on fixed incomes.  That’s why AARP Foundation’s Tax-Aide provides free tax preparation services through thirty-five thousand volunteers. These services ensure older adults have access to the tax-preparation skills they need to decrease their tax payments and increase refunds.  In fact, AARP Foundation’s Tax-Aide has been so popular among older taxpayers that it is now the fourth-largest tax preparation service in the country, and the nation’s largest no-cost program.

One of the reason for Tax-Aide’s success is that it allows lower-income clients to maximize their access to one of the most effective programs for lifting people out of poverty:  the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).  EITC enjoys broad bipartisan support for its impact on low-income workers.  Unfortunately, many vulnerable older adults are unaware that the EITC is applicable to them.  Twenty percent of EITC-eligible adults overlook this tax credit when completing their income tax returns.

AARP Foundation Tax-Aide volunteers offer their free tax assistance to ensure that vulnerable older adults receive the EITC and and all other benefits and tax credits available to them.  Tax-preparation volunteers are required to meet stringent requirements and pass very difficult assessments conducted by the IRS to guarantee the quality of the services they provide.  And because many Tax-Aide volunteers are themselves retired, they truly understand the needs and concerns of the older adults who they are trying to help.

Tax-Aide services are available at no cost, regardless of age, nationwide.  You can find services in your area here, and you can also learn more about becoming a Tax-Aide volunteer with AARP Foundation here.

On the Eve of 2015

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In the spirit of the New Year, I’ve spent a good part of the past week contemplating change—change I would like to make in my life and career, places I would like to go, things I would like to do, the person I would like to become. The perception is that as a person ages, change becomes harder. The theory goes that over time, people become comfortable in their ways and not only have great difficulty seeing the need for change but also implementing strategies to make long-lasting, meaningful change in their lives.

In truth, change is difficult at any age. However, age can give a person the maturity to see the need for change as well as the knowledge needed to motivate action. Research indicates that older people often are very successful making changes through counseling and in other therapeutic settings. In a recent New York Times article, Dr. Robert C. Abrams, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan, said, “Older patients realize that time is limited and precious and not to be wasted. They tend to be serious about the discussion and less tolerant of wasted time. They make great patients.” In fact, experts say that seniors generally have a higher satisfaction rate in therapy than younger people because they are usually more serious about it. Time is critical, and their goals usually are well defined.

A friend and mentor of mine likes to say, “The way you do anything is the way you do everything.” I’ve found this quote often holds true in my own experience. Trends tend to bleed across the separate spheres of my life, and I find myself faltering in similar ways on different endeavors. It is inordinately frustrating to me to see my weaknesses play out similarly time and again. While it’s daunting to identify these trends and try to make change, the quote above also offers some comfort. If the way we do anything is the way we do everything, then it’s possible that by changing the way we do one thing, we’re able to make impact everything in our lives. It’s an amazingly empowering idea.

My hope, for others and myself, is that in 2015 we are all able to find and make that one change that will spin our lives off into a new, more positive direction.

Happy New Year!

When Veterans Are Vulnerable

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Veterans Day is a good occasion to focus our attention on those who have served their country and now need our help in return. I recently attended the Veterans Housing Convening sponsored by the National Housing Conference, where I was fortunate enough to learn more about the problems facing vulnerable veterans.

The United States owes much to our veterans for the sacrifices they have made to preserve our freedoms and way of life. Because of this debt of gratitude, the country should support our veterans both by ensuring that they receive access to all of the financial and educational benefits they earned during their service, and by offering a helping hand to veterans if they fall upon difficult times

In many ways the discipline and job skills learned through military service have benefited veterans greatly upon their return to civilian life. For example, the median income for male veterans, $36,285, is approximately $3,000 more than the median income for male non-veterans. And for female veterans, the median income, $28,982, is about $7,000 more than that for female non-veterans. However, a small but substantial group of veterans, 1.4 million in total, live in poverty. Our nation needs to find better ways to support them.

Housing is an area where veterans often are particularly vulnerable. Approximately 4 million veterans live in unaffordable housing, and it tends to be disabled veterans who are the most burdened by their housing costs. This is a significant problem given that 14 percent of all veterans have a service-related disability. A disability can make it much more difficult to find housing that meets the veteran’s needs, and this type of housing often comes with a substantial price tag. Additionally, many veterans are also at risk of homelessness. Unfortunately, veterans are overrepresented in the homeless population: Veterans represent 9.5 percent of the adult population nationwide, but they constitute 16 percent of homeless adults.

While younger veterans are often the focus of veteran initiatives, older veterans also face many problems associated with poverty. These older veterans must also contend with the health problems and physical limitations associated with aging. So it’s important that programs targeting struggling veterans not just focus on those who have recently completed their service. All veterans who are vulnerable economically or physically, regardless of their age, deserve our help.

By offering support to all struggling veterans of every age, we can show our gratitude for the service they provided our country and celebrate their patriotism and sacrifice — something that is needed not just on Veterans Day but every day.

For more information about the issues veterans face, see the National Housing Conference and Center for Housing Policy’s Facts about Veterans and Housing.

This post was featured on the AARP Foundation web site.

5 Essential Facts from “Housing America’s Older Adults”

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AARP Foundation sponsored a just-released report by The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University called “Housing America’s Older Adults — Meeting the Needs of an Aging Population.” The report highlights the many challenges the nation faces in providing affordable and adequate housing to an aging demographic whose numbers are increasing year by year. Here are a few key findings from the report:

  1. Older people are skimping on other necessities in order to keep themselves house.  Food, transportation, medical care … low-income older adults are making gut-wrenching trade-offs every day as they struggle to make rent and mortgage payments. In fact, older adults with the highest housing-cost burdens spend 40 percent less on food than their counterparts in more affordable housing.
  1. A large portion of America’s available housing is not adequate for the needs of older adults. As people age, their physical needs change. Climbing stairs can become difficult. Doorknobs and light switches become harder to grasp. Lighting may no longer be sufficient for weakened eyes. Unfortunately, housing does not automatically adjust to fit the needs of its inhabitants. As the older demographic continues to grow, more and more people will find themselves in housing that no longer fits their requirements for safe, independent living.
  1. America is a lonely, difficult place to live if you can’t drive. Ask any teenager: Getting to and from anywhere without a car can be a challenge. Walkways, bike lanes, buses, subways and other public transportation are often not convenient substitutes for a car. Older adults who lose the ability to drive are often left at home isolated, with their personal and physical needs unmet, because of too few transportation options – or none at all.
  1. Lack of integration between housing and healthcare increases costs and puts the independence of older people at risk. Home- and community-based care allows older adults with healthcare needs to avoid expensive stays in long-term facilities and readmissions into hospitals. Unfortunately, America’s healthcare infrastructure does not currently provide in-home and community options to many of the most vulnerable older adults.
  1. There is still time to help a large number of aging people!!! Even though many 50+ currently live in unaffordable or inadequate housing, this doesn’t always have to be the case. The vast majority of boomers have not yet reached the age where their housing has become a serious problem. With education, planning and resources, older adults and those who support them have the ability to change course and improve options available to people as they age.

To read the report in full, please visit AARP Foundation’s housing report page.

To learn more about what AARP Foundation is doing to improve the housing of older adults, please visit the Housing section of the AARP Foundation website.

This post was featured on the AARP Foundation website.

Building Empathy

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A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend.  He said, “I think that the difficult times in my life have made me a more empathetic person.”

I’ve been going through a somewhat difficult period lately.  I re-aggravated a disc in my spine that seems to be particularly prone to herniation.  Usually my back pain only lasts a week or two, but this time it’s been present in varying degrees for the past two-and-a half months.  This has been extremely frustrating for me.  The pain has caused me to change my entire routine.  Little things, like cleaning my house or making lunch can be really arduous.  Friends I’m used to seeing nearly every day haven’t been seen in weeks because I can’t work out with them at the gym anymore.  Don’t get me wrong, things are improving, but this has definitely been a long “two steps forward, one step back” process, and there are definitely days when I’ve become irritable and less than positive.

My experience makes me think of a workshop I attended last year at AARP Foundation.  The workshop was called “Sensitivity to Aging Issues” and it was hosted by the Macklin Intergenerational Institute.  You can see a sample of the activities from the session in this video:

Basically the workshop walked participants through exercises that allowed them to experience some of the negative effects—both physical and emotional—of aging.  We had the opportunity to internalize how wear-and-tear on the body and loss of people and abilities can change a person’s outlook, sometimes causing them to become, much like me, irritable and less than positive.

To be honest, my current experience with pain is probably doing more to build my empathy than the workshop.  My perspective is improved when I focus on the fact that there are plenty others in this world who are in far worse condition than myself.  However, I think that the workshop caused me and the other participants to be thoughtful and take the time to really explore the experiences and feelings of others—especially those universal experiences that make us all human.  By opening ourselves up to a better understanding of one another, we become less willing to judge one another negatively, and we’re much better able approach each other with kindness and empathy.

The Benefit of Volunteering

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Overlooking Spencer Glacier

The wind passed over Spencer Glacier and an iceberg-filled lake before hitting our tents, making the June air cold, even by Alaskan standards.  The residents of our camp consisted of me and seven other American Hiking Society volunteers, five college interns with the National Forest Service and two Forest Service staff members.  We had made camp at Spencer, part of the Chugach National Forest, to access some of the nearby trails and clear them of non-native plants that had the potential to overwhelm local species.  Every morning for five days, we hiked away from camp into the mountains.  We stopped for lunch and then hiked back down, digging out non-native weeds as we walked.

I love the outdoors.  My parents raised me camping and boating on the Great Lakes.  I grew up learning to fish and hunt and feel comfortable in the wild.  Conservation was taught to me from a young age, and those lessons were reinforced as pollution threatened the safety of the fish that we caught in Lake Huron.  Overtime, experiences in the developing world caused my views to shift away from conservation more towards environmentalism, which in turn caused me to take a job on a campaign to stop drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge after I graduated from college.

Even though my current work with AARP Foundation focuses on meeting the housing needs of vulnerable, older adults, environmental issues are still very important to me personally.  AARP Foundation offers its staff paid time to volunteer with other charitable or public organizations.  This is a benefit that I truly value.  Some staff use this time to sit on the boards of different non-profit groups; others use it to chaperone their children’s field trips.  I love using this benefit as an opportunity to contribute to society and foster my interests in issues that I don’t always think about on a daily basis.  Volunteering with the American Hiking Society gave me a new perspective on nature and environmental challenges.  Although I don’t know when I will return to Alaska, it was certainly experience that will stay in my heart for a long time.

5 Times to Get Advice on Your Mortgage

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Providing education and advice to older homeowners is the mission of the program I manage, AARP Foundation’s Housing Solutions Center.  Unfortunately, many homeowners don’t realize that they can benefit from the services we provide and because of that, they often miss opportunities to explore available programs and assistance that might make their mortgage payments more affordable or help them maximize their financial power.  Too many homeowners wait until they are in dire circumstances or faced with foreclosure before asking a professional for advice.  However, if a problem is discovered early, when it is small, more options are often available and the steps to resolve the problem are generally easier to manage.  In fact, there are five specific times when it makes very good sense to seek the advice of a professional–before your housing costs become a serious problem.

When You Make or Revise Your Budget

Some people revisit their budget annually; others manage their budget less formally.  Regardless, if you are trying to make changes in your household budget in order to meet short- or long-term financial goals, it may make sense to consult a housing counselor to see what options are available related to your mortgage to ensure that housing costs don’t inhibit your ability to meet financial objectives in other areas.

When Faced With a Major Expense

Medical bills, a major home repair, the need to purchase a vehicle: New expenses can come out of the blue.  If there is an unavoidable expense that you are facing that threatens to throw your budget out of balance, it may be worthwhile to talk to a housing counselor.  The cost of housing makes up a huge portion of the average person’s spending, and there may be ways to reduce those costs to make room for unexpected, unavoidable expenses.

When there Is a Decrease in Your Income

If you lose your job, have a cut-back in hours or a decrease in wages, one of the first steps to take is to get advice regarding your mortgage.  Assistance is often available for people when their paychecks are in transition.  Input from a certified adviser could help you to better understand how your new income may affect your ability to make your mortgage payments and ease the transition as you navigate the job market and realign your finances.

When Your Mortgage Payments Change

Perhaps your mortgage payments have ballooned or your interest rate has gone up.  If a substantial change has occurred in your housing expenses, advice from the Housing Solutions Center may be able to help you better understand what you can expect moving forward and give you options to make changes in your mortgage, if needed.

When a Major Life Change Occurs

Divorce, the death of a spouse, a disability…  all of these things have a major impact on your housing and financial stability.  Additionally, these are all very emotional situations in which people often have difficulty seeing their options objectively.  Advice from a professional can help you focus your attention on the most important aspects of your housing and financial circumstances.  This individuallytailored advice can serve as a guide as you move into a new phase in your life.

The housing education and advice provided through the Housing Solutions Center can be helpful to homeowners in a variety of circumstances, not just those faced with imminent foreclosure.  All of the services we offer are free of charge and can be accessed through our toll-free number:  1-855-850-2525.  Please give us a call.

I was pleased that AARP Foundation featured this post here on its website.