The baby boomer generation was supposed to be the one that slid into its twilight years with everything sorted out – health, financial stability and long life expectancy. But that may not be the case. According to a new study, boomers – defined by the authors as people between the ages of 50 and 64 – are facing a host of health and economic challenges.
The study, released last week by Feeding America – a nonprofit network of food banks – with funding from the AARP Foundation, a lobbying group for older adults, found that roughly 8 million baby boomers are going hungry and are turning to charity for food. According to the report, which surveyed 60,000 people, the main challenges fueling the crisis were unemployment, housing shortages and poor health.
“Our network serves 13 million older adults and we expect that number to rise,” said Matt Knott, president of Feeding America. “This is absolutely the right time to be taking a hard look at the data to determine the challenges our mature clients face.”
The AARP report uses the US Department of Agriculture’s definition of food insecurity, which is “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food”. According to the study of the older adults relying on the services of Feeding America, 62% were baby boomers.
In addition to detrimental health outcomes for the roughly 10,000 people in America who turn 65 each day, there are troubling signs that the challenges facing boomers are spilling out in unexpected ways into the economy.
According to the study, nearly two-thirds of respondents ages 50 to 64 had not been employed in the past year, with 73% indicating poor health and disability as the reason, while 28% reported searching for work in the past four weeks. Even more concerning, 67% said they lived in a household with an annual income of less than $20,000. Despite their health and financial struggles, boomers aren’t yet eligible for federal programs like Medicare or social security to ease the load.
It’s a vicious cycle, and it can be difficult to determine which set of problems came first. What is clear is that the effects are visible and growing.
“Increasing chronic disease and disability in baby boomers can have consequences beyond poor health and higher medical bills,” King said. “Disability can lead to unemployment and lower income, and lower income can lead to having less money for essentials such as food.”
Some programs are helping to provide nutritional support to some disadvantaged baby boomers. For example, the Senior Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program, a USDA-sponsored initiative, gives seniors in many states vouchers that can be exchanged for fresh foods at farmers’ markets. However, the program – like many others – is only available to low-income seniors who are at least 60 years old, so it is effectively closed off to many younger boomers who are still in the workforce.
Experts say that businesses also have a role to play in tackling the problem. Along with giving more jobs to older adults, companies can help fund local programs aimed at improving the health of boomers.
“Addressing the system-wide economic issues is obviously needed,” said Dana King, professor and chair of West Virginia University’s Department of Family Medicine and lead author of a 2013 study of health issues affecting boomers. “The private sector can help by promoting workplace wellness and contributing to community public health programs that encourage regular exercise and healthy diet habits in the adult working population.”
Bruce Watson, a freelance writer and editor, contributed to this article.