A lifeline for seniors: As living costs skyrocket, senior centers can help those on fixed income find assistance

By EMILY THURLOW

Staff Writer

Published: 02-24-2023 5:43 PM

EASTHAMPTON — With utility rates skyrocketing well past where they were last year, and the increased costs of food, medicine and housing, the burden can quickly become too much for those living on a fixed income.

Cynthia Tarail, director of the Easthampton Council on Aging, knows that all too well. On a regular basis, she’s seeing Easthampton seniors come to the senior center with significantly high energy bills that they can’t pay.

“When our seniors have to choose between food, medicine and utility bills — not to mention helping other family members afford their expenses, which we see all the time — you can get behind,” she said.

However, many are either unaware of benefit programs they may be eligible for, or have been discouraged after being turned down for them in the past.

In an effort to lessen those economic hardships, Tarail is urging seniors to reach out to their local senior center for a benefits checkup.

“We see seniors who are doing just what society is asking of them — trying to age in place,” she said. “They worked hard all their lives, and they earned these benefits. Too many are coming to us suffering in place with debt that could conceivably have been less had they come sooner. We can help.”

Before energy costs escalated to their current levels, an older couple with “excellent” health and a mortgage needed at least $3,983 a month to cover their basic needs, according to a November 2021 report from the Elder Index, from the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston. However, the index shows that a couple with failing health and a mortgage will need at least $4,571 a month to cover their basic needs.

A single homeowner with no mortgage and in poor health needed $2,394, and a single older adult renter in good health needed $2,345.

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For many Easthampton seniors, that level of outcome is out of reach, Tarail said.

In addition to the increased cost of living, many COVID-19 pandemic funding programs are coming to an end, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s extra, temporary benefits, known as SNAP emergency allotments. Households receiving the additional $95 SNAP emergency allotment will receive their last payment on March 2.

At senior centers like Easthampton’s, outreach workers can help residents through the application process and enroll them in benefits programs. The senior center can also help those who don’t have access to a computer or don’t have an email address.

“A lot of people qualify for benefits and they don’t even know,” said Ashley Brown, outreach worker at the Easthampton Senior Center. “All it takes is a conversation.”

The application process can be daunting and even frustrating for some. If a form is not processed “exactly” right, applicants can be disqualified or termed “ineligible” even if they are, in fact, eligible, Tarail said.

“People sometimes throw up their hands and give up. What they need is someone to help them and make sure that if they are eligible, they can successfully apply. With a benefits check in, we can go through every possible source of assistance available to help our seniors,” she said.

One opportunity Tarail recommended is Eversource’s “New Start” program, which can help people eliminate an outstanding balance over the course of a year. According to Eversource’s website, the company will review an account-holder’s bill history and set a monthly payment plan based on the average of their regular monthly bill. With each payment made under the new program, the company will eliminate or “forgive” a portion of the total balance and reduce the amount of money owed. The amount forgiven each month is calculated by taking the total enrolled balance and dividing it by 12.

Applicants must show proof they are income-eligible and typically have applied for other benefits, and they must continue to pay a specified amount on time.

Brown said that she and other outreach workers can help with applications and other benefits that can support a household’s overall budget.

“We don’t want folks to get discouraged when their circumstances change,” she said.

One of the other barriers to access has been the stigma of these assistance programs. Some folks might feel that “there’s someone who needs the help more” than they do, Brown said.

“But you can’t compare situations because circumstances affect everyone differently,” she said.

Throughout the winter, state Rep. Dan Carey, D-Easthampton, and state Sen. John Velis, D-Westfield, have heard from seniors who are struggling with their bills, and have been working to connect them with resources. Both legislators have encouraged their constituents to seek out this service offered by senior centers.

“Folks have been reaching out from all four of my communities — of all ages. It is so important to reach out about benefit programs so they don’t miss out,” Carey said.

For more information on a benefits checkup in Easthampton, call 413-527-6151, or visit easthamptonma.gov/571/Outreach-Services.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.]]>