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Poverty has a face I didn’t expect

I saw it again yesterday. It met my long-held “Rule of Three.”

I believe if you see or hear something totally unanticipated, something almost unbelievable, and you come upon it in three quite-different circumstances, you should recognize it as a new truth.

I saw a bent and wrinkled elder, wearing a dilapidated cloth backpack and holding a hand-scrawled cardboard sign. She was standing next to a busy intersection, leaning on her cane — hoping for a donation. I think that is what we should call it when the person needing to ask for help in this way is that old.

I saw the same kind of thing last week. It was a red-faced elder, male this time, sitting on a tiny metal stool in a grocery store parking lot. His slightly battered walker was nearby. No sign, but he had a ceramic cup and he put forth a plaintiff “Please” as people passed by.

A few weeks ago, in another venue, it was two rail-thin, aging men with their gray-headed dog on a rope leash. The dog was thin too. One of the men had a significant tremor.

I witnessed this and then read an article in The Atlantic, posted by the AARP Foundation. It was titled the “The Unexpected Face of Poverty” and it said this: “The word ‘poverty’ conjures up images of rundown houses and blighted neighbors, ragged clothes and empty cupboards. But try instead to see poverty as having a face. It might be the face of a child. The face of someone from a developing country that’s stricken by drought or famine. The face of a young man or woman crushed by opioid addiction. What you probably don’t picture is the face of an older adult.”

I simply cannot get the faces of 80-year-old people begging for food out of my mind. I see this as our new grim reality. Increasingly more older adults are poor or very poor. Three in 10 adults older than 55 do not have any money whatsoever saved for retirement. Their only hope is Social Security. That is, if they have the accumulated work hours to draw it. If they have, the average benefit is $1,369 per month.

If these elders have a place to live, it’s often a single-wide, manufactured home built in the early ’70s when there were no building standards. It has not been well-maintained. That’s hard to do when almost half your monthly Social Security benefit is going to your “space rental” in the mobile home “park” where you reside. The homes of elders in poverty often have linoleum floors rotted through to the degree you can sometimes see the earth below and a refrigerator that stopped working ages ago and was replaced by an ice chest.

Elder poverty shows up as “food insecurity, unaffordable or inadequate housing, social isolation or loneliness. It leads to “diabetes, depression, heart disease and other chronic diseases — as well as rising health care costs.”

Poverty has a face — one you might not expect. You can see it, but first you must look. Start there.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of “How Gray in My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.

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