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Impossible Choices

Bringing Hope and Help to the Elderly Poor

At her day job, Marcy Gouge works in the AARP Foundation’s consumer fraud protection program, teaching people how to recognize, resist, and report the numerous scams aimed at older Americans. She’s learned a lot about older people during her career, including their sense of pride and their fears.

“The biggest fear most people have about getting older is that they’ll lose their independence—that they, who have given so much to raising their families, bringing home paychecks for jobs well done, serving their communities and their country, will find themselves on the other side, forced to ask for help themselves,” she says.

“Interestingly, often the ones they are least likely to ask for help [from] are their children. Older people often believe—rightly or wrongly—that if anybody thinks they can’t take care of their issues, they might try to put them away in a nursing home or criticize them. Needing help upsets that balance of power between parents and kids. No one wants their kids to think of them as a ‘problem,’ ” she says.

So, for AARP’s annual employee Day of Service, Marcy decided to offer AARP Foundation’s Benefits QuickLink checkups to the older congregants at her church. Benefits QuickLink (BQL) is an online program for the low-income elderly where, often with help from BQL volunteers, they can learn whether they qualify for state and federal programs to help them meet their basic needs. “It’s amazing how many older people are unaware that these benefits even exist. For example, two-thirds of age 60-plus people who qualify for SNAP benefits [formerly known as food stamps] aren’t getting them. It’s heartbreaking—no one should go hungry in America,” she says.

Marcy collaborated with the minister at her church, who works directly with the large contingent of older congregants, in setting up the daylong BQL program. She asked that any older people who wanted to learn more about available benefits also bring with them a list of the prescription drugs that they were taking; many pharmaceutical companies have programs to help people pay for prescription drugs. The results? “Very valuable for them, and truly rewarding for me,” she says.

One of the people she talked to was an 87-year-old widow whose husband had died 20 years earlier. “She was a typical wife and widow from the Greatest Generation,” Marcy says. “She had never worked outside the home and had very little involvement in any financial matters during her marriage—her husband had handled everything. Twenty years after his death, she literally had almost nothing left and was paying over half of her disposable income for prescription drugs. The day we talked, two prescriptions were waiting for her at her pharmacy. They cost $150, and she had no money to pay for them,” Marcy says.

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