If you haven’t seen it yet, you might soon. The slow encroachment of age. Not to be morbid, but these mortal coils have shelf lives. Translation for the millennial set: Aging is like rising sea levels, except the tides are creeping up on your grandma, not a polar bear that can’t play scrabble with you.
Time is indiscriminate in its assault on the body and mind. It pays no regard to the Geneva Convention, and I’m sure the UN hasn’t had any luck in taming its unfair ways.
When you have money, aging can be managed. Money means stable housing and food on the table and medical care and plans for the future.
When you don’t have money, aging can be more difficult.
In Los Angeles, low-income seniors face increasing stress. Many never made enough money during their working years to build a retirement account and now must primarily survive on monthly Social Security checks. The problem: the cost of living keeps rising, but Social Security payments stay flat. LA County offers a robust network of public, private and non-profit resources that fill some gaps, but the network can be difficult to access, and it is stretched thin.
Brandi Orton, Director of Government Relations for the Los Angeles Aging Advocacy Coalition said that she tried to warn government institutions about this trend more than five years ago.
“To be honest it was falling on deaf ears because it wasn’t visually seen on the streets. Then suddenly everyone cared and wanted to listen to what we had been saying the whole time. People need a subsidy to get their rent paid because they are spending 80% of their income on rent.”
We spent time with three seniors who are living on their Social Security checks or less. They shared their struggles and their joys, what they’re worried might fall apart and what keeps them together. They shared their struggles with the system. They shared the ways they have succeeded in the system. They look to the future with pleasure and worry, peace and bitterness.
These are their stories.
Marshal Silverman, 73, uses his nebulizer in his apartment.
‘I Think It’s About Time I Get the Hell Out of Here.’
Marshal Silverman, 73, wears the same yarmulke from his bar mitzvah at the age of 13.
Marshal Silverman let his raised arm drop back to his dining room table, tugged his sweater sleeve back down over the bug bite welts he just showed us, and paused for a ragged breath.
The 73-year-old sees his Social Security check stretching thinner every year to pay the rent for his Westlake studio apartment, where he’s lived for 11 years. He’s had concerns before: The apartment is too small, a maintenance man dripped plaster on his upholstered chairs and an antique fur collar, and climbing the stairs to the second floor with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary disease (COPD) and a walker just keeps getting harder.
At the moment, the issue is his bedbug bites, and the prospect of having to pack up his shelves of memorabilia and heirlooms so that property management can spray for the “critters,” as he calls them.
“Look around the room,” he said, gesturing toward antique tchotchkes and family photographs. “Well, they’re going to have to figure out, without breaking anything, how to do this.”
Silverman knows he needs to move soon, because the math is simple. Every year, his rent increases by 4% — the maximum for rent-controlled LA apartments for which the landlord pays gas — but over the last decade his monthly federal Social Security check increased an average of only 1.36% a year. In three of those years (2010, 2011 and 2016), it didn’t increase at all.
Across the county, the story is similar. Rents are rising like wild, and it’s taking a big bite out of this population’s small, often fixed incomes. In 2019, Social Security payments rose by 2.8%. In the same period of time, the county Fair Market Rate (FMR) for a one-bedroom apartment — set annually by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) — jumped by 7.8%.
Marshal Silverman, 73, climbs the stairs to his apartment.
To save a little money, Silverman smokes Montanas, an off-brand cigarette that’s $7 less than Marlboros. With reluctance, Silverman and a friend decided to split the bill for a flip phone, which Silverman calls his electronic leash.
For fun, he and his caretaker Josh Madrid, 30, go thrift shopping. His most recent find is “Audrey,” a 3-foot-square, black-and-white print of Audrey Hepburn that sits on a high shelf, casting a sultry gaze over our interview.
Beyond that, Silverman doesn’t spend much. He can’t. CalFresh — California’s largest public food aid program — covers food, and Madrid is paid by the county, but his monthly rental payment of $915.61 eats up almost all of his Social Security check. Housing experts consider any rent amount over 30% of income to be burdensome. Even if you count CalFresh as income, Silverman’s rent takes up over 72%.
Every month, Silverman has $179 left for all expenses that aren’t food or rent. By July 30, two days before his next check was due to arrive, he was down to 28 cents.
“I’ve always lived on a tight budget,” Silverman said.
That tight budget puts him in sticky situations. He’s on MediCal, California’s version of Medicaid health insurance, and only pays a few bucks a month in copays, but has still racked up medical bills. His hospital just sold the debt to a debt collection agency in Pennsylvania and the number is jaw-dropping: $28,940. It’s a debt he’ll probably never pay.
As a younger man, Silverman worked jobs ranging from social work to tupperware sales. He especially likes to talk about his time in the entertainment industry — “in front of the camera” — as an extra and sometimes a principal. Indeed, there is an old headshot of Silverman on a shelf. In it, his hair is already starting to thin. He says he never contributed to a retirement plan or 401(k).
Silverman says he became homeless at 59 and lived between shelters and friends’ couches for two and a half years before finally getting approved for Social Security. With it, he was able to rent this apartment.
Now, though, he can’t find an apartment that he can afford.
Other housing options are available for people in Silverman’s situation. HUD issues Section 8 subsidy vouchers. If you qualify for one, you pay 30% of your income towards rent, and HUD covers the rest.
If Silverman wanted to move to an assisted-living facility, MediCal would subsidize the cost. For-profit organizations have worked out how to provide room, board and basic medical attention using just someone’s Social Security check; it’s cheap considering the array of services provided and rents elsewhere in the county. The bad part: Los Angeles County’s assisted-living centers draw the most complaints in the state, California Department of Social Service records show.
County policymakers are also working to provide housing alternatives. In 2016, the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services (LADHS) launched the Flex Housing Subsidy Pool, a subsidy program similar to Section 8 that targets people with chronic health conditions.
Silverman, though, encounters obstacles. Some places he calls tell him his situation is not severe enough. Others tell him ,sure, but the waiting list will take several years. Madrid has been trying to help in every way he can think:
“Everywhere we go, he's not being heard. Everywhere we go, they tell him, ‘You have to wait until you're homeless,’ and that's the only time they can help.”
The pair joke about buying a tent to pretend for social workers that Silverman is homeless. Living in a tent, though, could pose life-threatening risks for Silverman, that are no laughing matter: He would have nowhere to plug in the nebulizer he uses to treat his COPD.
“What scares me is that if he [has to live] on the street he's gonna die,” Madrid said, “He's not going to live much longer if he's out there without a breathing treatment or without his medication.”
Tim Wynn, 60, knows what it’s like to be homeless.
‘I would walk through the alley crying and praying and sick.’
Tim Wynn’s voice rumbles, like traffic over a freeway bridge, and it filled the slate grey conference room we sat in: Tim and two journalists, his case manager, and his little yellow dog Smokey.
Wynn, a former fashion stylist at Nordstrom, quit his job in 2015 to care for his ailing mother Dorothy, who passed away. When she did, she left behind two dogs (Doby and Smokey), a car, and a son who suddenly found himself developing health problems of his own. Tim found he had congestive heart failure (CHF), bronchitis and severe hypertension, in addition to severe depression he’d lived with for years.
Unable to go back to work at Nordstrom because the stairs were suddenly too difficult, Wynn couldn’t pay rent and moved into the car. Doby passed away six months after Dorothy, but Smoky moved in with him.
Wynn found ways to manage. He got on General Relief, a county-funded assistance program for adults ineligible for other state and county financial help. It currently is worth $221 a month. He also got on CalFresh. To get money for gas, Wynn started picking recyclables from trash cans. He estimates he makes about $50 a month:
"I would walk through the alley crying and praying and sick. But I couldn’t give up, because I knew that if I gave up that would be the end."
He says he began to accumulate items in his car and had nowhere to sit but the driver’s seat.
“I can’t believe I lived there. It’s dirty, filthy,” he said. “I remember, in the summertime, you wanna let the window down, because it’s hot, but you gotta deal with the flies. But it becomes a part of life. You just learn to cope with it.”
Tim Wynn, 60, with his best friend Smokey.
Wynn’s health began to worsen. Heat is particularly bad for CHF and last summer it got so hot one weekend that his case manager at People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) helped put him up in a motel for a weekend.
Once, he tried staying in a shelter with 400 other men. He says that it was crowded and cramped, and that after only a few days, he caught a bad flu. To get better, he moved out of the shelter and back into his car, where he was better able to rest and the germs could fade.
When he was working, he went to therapy to help manage his depression, but now he couldn’t afford it. He stopped taking medications — both for depression and his other conditions — and eventually stopped picking them up. He says that a few times, overwhelmed by illness and bouts of depression, he was so unable to move from the driver’s seat of his car that he relieved himself there.
Benjamin Henwood, a gerontologist at USC’s Royal Institute on Aging, said that cases like Tim’s are common. Poverty, he said, accelerates the aging process. He and a team of researchers found that people experiencing chronic homelessness can experience declines in cognitive functioning and physical hardiness as much as 30 years early.
Too young for Social Security — 62 is the cut-off for early retirement — but too old and sick to work, it took Wynn close to two years to begin to find a way out.
He eventually did, through Los Angeles’ comprehensive social service network. Lava Mae, a homelessness service non-profit with arms in San Francisco, East Bay, and Los Angeles, sets up a mobile shower unit along with a resource fair at Mt. Tabor Church in South Los Angeles every Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
He began going regularly for a shower and to connect to resources. After several visits, he says a Los Angeles Housing Services Authority case worker told him, “Sir, you look sick.”
She helped get Smokey put up in a shelter while Wynn was taken to a local hospital, where he says he stayed for two weeks, enjoying a bed in a quiet room for the first time in almost two years. When he was released, he moved into interim housing at the Weingart Center in Skid Row.
Wynn qualified for a permanent housing subsidy through a county Department of Health Services rental subsidy program called the Flex Housing Subsidy Pool (FHSP) and moved into the Vermont Villas, a project-based permanent housing site run by PATH. A case manager is helping him set goals and he takes Smoky for a walk every day.
Wynn remembers the noise and rats in Skid Row. He cried when he finally left the interim housing site and is grateful for the quiet. But he’s still worried about the people he left behind.
“I told them, ‘Don’t quit,’” he said, “Please, you guys, just hang in there.”
Gero Galeano, 72, reflects on her community.
‘I am always at peace.’
Gero Galeano, 72, sits in her studio apartment.
Gero Galeano answered the door wearing a simple dress with a geometric pattern, ballet flats with a scalloped edge, and her white hair bound low on her neck with a black rubber tie.
We followed her down a narrow hallway and into a studio apartment that has been cleaned to a sparkle. It smells like Fabuloso, a purple cleaning liquid. Galeano furnished her apartment simply, with a bed, a tiny curio cabinet and a few chairs. We settle into a wooden chair and a love seat arrayed on either side of the kitchen doorway. Galeano opts for the chair across the room. She looks small against the big, white wall.
Gero, short for Geronima, fidgets with the edge of her chair and speaks softly, in her native Spanish.
“I came from Guatemala with my son. I came with the smallest one and left three back there. Because the father of my children was very mean to me. That's why I came.”
Galeano began cleaning houses and offices for money. In 1995, a brother who had been in the U.S. for years helped her to get legal status. Her other three children eventually joined her.
Unlike some seniors, she has a lot of family around. Two brothers also live in Los Angeles, and a sister in Reno. Her four children live around Los Angeles County, and all are married, with families of their own. She has 19 grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and counting.
Her children are trying to convince her to come live with one of them, but she is enjoying living alone.
When she retired at 65 and started living on her Social Security check, she moved into a trailer on one of her son’s property, but bolted for this studio apartment as soon as she worked out the finances.
It’s walking distance from church — she’s been at the same one for 28 years — it’s private, and she is free to sleep in as late as she wants.
She can’t immediately remember the name of the program that helped her get this place, but we work out that she is a beneficiary of a federal Section 8 subsidy voucher. She was on the waiting list for a relatively meager six months before moving in (probably a miracle from God, she says), and only has to pay 30% ($239) of her monthly check for rent. She says that the remainder of the check covers food and other expenses for a simple lifestyle. Her medical bills are insured by MediCal.
Even the medical bills are low. She says she is healthy and has few problems besides aches in her bones that she attributes to hard manual labor in Guatemala.
On the wall of Galeano’s apartment is a banner that someone brought her from Guatemala with Psalm 100 written in Spanish.
She brightens up when we ask her about it, and recites the first couple lines:
“It says, ‘Sing with joy, inhabitants of the whole earth’ And so we sing with joy. I’m happy at the church. I’m happy being there.”
Gero spends a lot of time at her church, Iglesia Cristiana Remanente Fiel. She says she doesn’t really know anyone outside of her 80-person church and her family.
Galeano is an example of the ways that the people near to you — family, friends, faith community — make life better as you age.
The fact that communities tend to dwindle with age doesn’t help.
“Social isolation can have a very negative influence when people get older and their friends and family die off,” said Janie Grauman, a licensed clinical social worker at WISE and Healthy Aging in Santa Monica, “They’re in pain and you [get] this combination of people who become sedentary and they’re alone. And those two things: bad combination.”
Galeano is anything but sedentary and alone. Once a year, she goes back to Guatemala for a month to visit family (she says she can’t stand to be there any longer). She walks to church at least three days a week and is escorted back home if it’s too dark to be safe. She takes the bus or gets a ride from one of her children to family gatherings, including to a birthday party for two of the great-grandchildren last week. If she’s every feeling anxious in her tiny apartment, she takes a walk to the market or spends time with her neighbor, a fellow septuagenarian Guatemalan.
She and her neighbor like to joke they are sisters: they’re only six years apart, they go to the same church, and they take care of each other. The neighbor’s promise to take care of her is one reason Galeano moved here instead of staying with her son.
We ask Galeano how she’s stayed so healthy over the years; her aches seem small in comparison to some others. Her answer is simple.
"God is the one that gives me energy.I am always at peace.”
If California’s 8,202,155 senior citizens formed a state, it would have the 13th largest population in the country, ahead of Massachusetts and Arizona. LA County, with 1,287,571 senior citizens, would come in 43rd (counting Puerto Rico).
For both county and state, that number and its share of the overall population is getting bigger. Twenty years ago, California had five people under 18 for every one person over 65. Today, that ratio is closer to one to one.
Still, it’s a population that’s easy to forget.
“It’s hard to understand if you’re going to work every day,” said Jeannee Parker Martin, the CEO of nonprofit advocacy association LeadingAge California, “There are many people who are isolated, they’re lonely. They don’t have anybody to talk to. They’re not being seen by anybody on any regular basis.”
In June, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order calling for a Master Plan for Aging to be published in March 2020. Parker Martin, whose association hopes to be involved in the planning, is excited about the potential: “The Master Plan for Aging helps to provide a framework, hopefully some more coordinated systems of care, that allow programs and services to be developed in a more informed way.”
While planning is in early stages, Parker Martin acknowledged the Master Plan might have trouble providing for people with limited resources. “We hope that it will be addressed,” she said, “We’re not going to be able to meet every single need, and so how do we both address [those needs] and narrow the focus appropriately so that the broadest number of individuals benefit?”
The county, city and non-profits are taking up some of the slack.
The Flex Housing Subsidy Pool (FHSP) voucher Wynn received is part of a countywide constellation of permanent, interim and emergency housing programs and is one of the first of its kind nationally. A copycat bill was proposed in the state Assembly in February. The Los Angeles Housing Services Authority (LAHSA) estimates these services placed 21,631 people in homes in the year between its 2018 and 2019 annual point-in-time homeless counts. For people like Marshal Silverman, who aren’t at immediate risk of being evicted and aren’t already homeless, the options are fewer. The problem is too big. LAHSA’s 2019 count found 58,936 people experiencing homelessness, and Silverman isn’t one of them.
Traditionally, homelessness service agencies have not coordinated their programs. Someone could call a non-profit or government agency, looking for help with housing, or employment, or healthcare, and be turned away if they didn’t fit the agency’s profile. Today, LA County has a Coordinated Entry System (CES) in place to ensure that there is “no wrong door.” Now, any agency that is a part of the CES can direct that caller to someone who is able to help.
Los Angeles County is divided into eight service planning areas, each with a case management agency that is the best place to call if you need help in that area. If, like most, you don’t know which service planning area you live in, the best number to call is 211, a sort of 911 for homelessness services.
MediCal continues to be the most crucial healthcare resource for seniors (it’s the biggest Medicaid program in the country). The American health system, though, spends the bulk of its resources on treating people once they’ve already become sick. Some experts say that resources should be shifted to financial education, mental health and holistic and preventative practices that keep people from becoming sick in the first place.
“Instead of only investing 30% in preventative programs, try investing 70% and see how much money it saves you,” said Erin W. Martin, the founder of consulting group Conscious Aging Solutions, “We need to have a social system and a society that invest in people on the front end instead of cleaning up the mess on the backend."
Some housing subsidy programs, like the FHSP, allow their rental subsidies to be applied to the costs of assisted living facilities and nursing homes, letting their clients keep a little more in their pockets.
Non-profit medical clinics, mental health clinics and other health-oriented organizations like Lava Mae have sprung up around the city to provide the most basic health services and serve as an access point into the system for people like Wynn.
Most importantly, there is the work done by loved ones, good samaritans and social workers. They are the most capable of helping seniors get access to public resources and fixing the little problems — a meal here, a phone bill there — that start to accumulate, and they are the best providers of social and emotional support.
Much is being done, but solutions are hard. More than 1 million seniors in Los Angeles County need care. For Silverman, Wynn, Galeano and the rest, the story is not over.
Silverman may lose a crucial piece of his small community soon. Madrid, his caretaker, is working two jobs right now — this one, and another at a movie theater — to pay rent in a house that he shares with several others.
“I'm afraid that if it continues,” Madrid said, “I'm not going to be able to afford, living here much longer.”
He plans to move to Las Vegas, where his sister lives in a two-bedroom apartment with a master bathroom and a hot tub and only pays $750 per month. He doesn’t want to leave Silverman alone and even asked him to move to Vegas (Silverman declined). In the meantime, they’re looking for an affordable apartment, and calling around, trying to get help.
Wynn is settling into his new place at Vermont Villas. Now that his housing is settled and his health is improving, he’d like to work in fashion again, or maybe in costume design. In two years he’ll be eligible for early retirement and Social Security, which will ease some of the burden of living on pennies.
Galeano doesn’t really want anything to change. She loves living alone and the rhythm of church and family life.
She knows the time will come when living alone becomes too difficult. She’ll finally move in with one of her children. As for whether the day will arrive when she can no longer take trips to Guatemala?
She laughs, saying in Spanish, "I don't know."
To hear the audio clips, click here and then hover over each photo.
Let’s Hear From the Experts
Gerontologist and social workers share their thoughts on the key problems that low-income seniors face in Los Angeles.
They highlight the main issues that need to be addressed in the system so that the living conditions of seniors can be improved.