I first met Jessica a few months after Bernard, when I began working in a volunteer program to help seniors avoid the sort of social isolation Bernard faced in his final days. She was a spry 92-year-old white woman, with a collection of fedoras that any hipster would envy. Although Jessica was three decades Bernard’s elder, she was better off in many ways. Jessica was college educated, and she had a pension, substantial assets, and a big family that helped out. Jessica lived in desirable senior community-subsidized housing in a white middle-class neighborhood. Her location ensured access to a robust menu of services: transportation, food programs, clinics and in-home health, continuing education, and safe sidewalks. Although she and Bernard both valued their independence and said they did not need help, Jessica’s siblings, nieces, and nephews came by to help with everything from grocery shopping to doctor's appointments (often without being asked), while Bernard struggled alone. Jessica was also in excellent health for her age: She had to use a walker for longer trips, but the public spaces in her neighborhood were better maintained and easier to navigate than Bernard's.
Jessica did face many of the afflictions encountered by other seniors in less affluent neighborhoods. Health problems like her recurring digestive problems, the passing of friends and relatives, and her own steadily declining mobility were both painful and tough. As is true for many seniors, handing over her car keys was an immense blow to Jessica’s identity. Still, she managed these challenges with support from an array of private and public resources that simply did not exist for seniors like Bernard. Though growing old was hard for both of them, the disparities that shaped their life chances never disappeared: Jessica lived an active life for three decades—a whole generation—longer than Bernard.
While poverty rates among seniors stayed relatively constant throughout the Great Recession compared to other groups, wealth differences continued to matter immensely. The presence of a Social Security check did not erase a lifetime of wealth inequalities. Such checks reflect lifetime earnings that exclude the informal “off the books” labor and care-work most likely to be done by women and minorities. To paraphrase one of my many older friends, some reach their golden years without a whole lot of gold; and who has more gold is not random. Often this has a racial component, a fact highlighted in a recent Pew Research Center report that shows that by 2013 the median wealth of white households was almost thirteen times that of black households—and these gaps expanded during the Great Recession.
Growing wealth inequality, and its racial components, continue to have profound ramifications for seniors’ lives. In addition to larger Social Security checks, the affluent seniors I encountered often owned homes, received pensions, had relatives who could hire health aides, and could afford supplemental health insurance. In contrast, seniors from poor and working-class backgrounds, who were also disproportionately people of color, often had little choice but to engage with public services even when they would prefer not to. Dave, a poor senior I describe in detail in my book, hated the idea of being dependent on public resources (even Social Security, which he likened to “welfare”). However, with a broken-down body, lots of health problems, no nearby family, and few assets, he felt he had little choice if he wanted to avoid being institutionalized for self-neglect. So he felt he had to invite the social worker into his meager apartment and make a show of both his competence and need to make sure he got the basic services he used to survive.