When 88-year-old Miriam Boss fell face-first in her home late last year, she was rushed, frightened and alone, to the Aria Health hospital in Torresdale, near her condo.
She told the doctors tending to her bruised forehead she had been feeling faint lately, and had fallen several times before, though the reason was a mystery to her.
Not to the doctors. Like a growing number of senior citizens in America, Boss wasn't getting the proper amount of food, and weakness from hunger was causing the falls.
"I hadn't realized that I wasn't eating enough," said Boss, a divorced former owner of a children's clothing store in North Philadelphia. "When the cupboard's bare, there's not much to do."
Boss is emblematic of a harsh and troubling trend: There was a nearly 80 percent increase in the number of seniors experiencing hunger in America between 2001 and 2010, according to new report compiled for the Meals on Wheels Research Foundation in Alexandria, Va. The foundation is part of the Meals on Wheels Association of America, the oldest and largest national organization devoted to senior nutrition.
According to the report, around 8.3 million seniors — Americans 60 and older — "face the threat of hunger." That's a specific term used by researchers meaning seniors who were polled as part of the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey expressed anxiety about not having enough food, or on occasion didn't have enough food, or sometimes skipped meals because of lack of money.
Overall, the research shows, nearly 15 percent of seniors nationwide, or more than one in seven, experienced hunger in 2010. In contrast, one in nine experienced hunger in 2005, according to economist James Ziliak, coauthor of the Meals on Wheels report and director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky. Craig Gundersen, an economist from the University of Illinois, was the other author.
In Pennsylvania, just under 15 percent of seniors — the national average — experienced hunger in 2010. In New Jersey, it was around 12 percent.
"The surprise was that things got worse for seniors," Ziliak said. "One in seven is an astounding figure." For African Americans, a large percentage of whom live in poverty, the chances that a senior experienced hunger was 132 percent higher than for a white senior, the report showed.
And the report teased out another startling fact: Seniors living with grandchildren were at least 50 percent more likely to experience hunger than those who didn't. Ziliak believes seniors tend to sacrifice their own food so their grandchildren can eat.
In Philadelphia, about 22,000 seniors, or 8 percent of the senior population, reported cutting out meals due to lack of money, according to Allen Glicksman, director of research for the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging. Meanwhile, research from the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger shows that 48,000 seniors received food from Philadelphia food pantries in fiscal year 2011.
The reasons seniors are hungry are myriad and complex.
In a hard-time economy, people on fixed incomes have extreme difficulty paying for ever more costly food, especially when they must lay out precious dollars for medication and other vital expenses, said Sandy Fryer, director of a Meals on Wheels program in Conshohocken.
That's the problem for Georginna Bailey, 61, of Williamstown, Gloucester County, who has grown accustomed to eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner. "If I have to eat bread and sugar water to survive, I will," said Bailey, a disabled former bus driver. "I shop the dollar store, or I do without."For some low-income seniors, their difficulties are compounded by not being able to get to a store to buy food, said Lori Shmukler, president of Homeline Inc., which manages a Meals on Wheels program in Mount Airy. "We see people who can't drive, can't carry groceries, and can't put food away once it's in the house because they have arthritis," Shmukler said.
Seniors also forget to eat, or are disabled, Ziliak said.
Pat Smith, 84, of Doylestown, said her $744 monthly Social Security check runs out several days before the month does. "So I just eat cereal for dinner on those nights," said Smith, who is divorced and lives alone.
Food stamps would help seniors tremendously, but people born in 1952 and before simply have a hard time accepting that kind of help, noted Ginger Zielinskie, executive director of Benefits Data Trust, a Center City nonprofit that helps low-income people access benefits.
"First and foremost, low-income seniors don't know they're eligible," Zielinskie said. "And there's a stigma among seniors regarding food stamps."
Is there ever, Smith said. "You read so much about people living off the government and not being independent," she said. "And I don't like it. It pushes you back into the shell a little more."
Smith finally accepted a social worker's pleadings to get help, and now she receives $145 a month in food stamps, called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. But she's reticent about it. "I haven't even told two of my three children I'm on food stamps," she added.
Boss, too, had a hard time accepting her $140 monthly SNAP benefits, which she reluctantly applied for after her hospital stay. "Suddenly, I'm begging?" Boss said. "It's still charity and it still hurts."
Only 30 percent of eligible seniors access SNAP nationwide, Ziliak said.
Making things still harder for seniors is that SNAP can be difficult to apply for, noted Enid Borden, president of Meals on Wheels. "I proposed to the government to simplify this onerous system," Borden said.
Ultimately, being old and hungry is a hard way to live, Boss will tell you. "I never thought anything like this would happen to me," she said. "I have a daughter and grandchildren and great-grandchildren in Connecticut. They call me and try to make me happy, but they don't know I'm hungry. It's nothing I'm bragging about. But if I can help even one senior lady get food stamps and find peace in her life, it would make me happy."