Citizen Staff Writer
Just as more older Tucsonans need help with basic necessities – food and a safe place to live – the agency that cares for the aging in Pima County is facing crippling budget cuts.
Expected cuts of about $3.8 million statewide, if approved by the Arizona Legislature, could gut programs that allow seniors to live safely in their own homes, said Jim Murphy, president and CEO of the Pima Council on Aging.
The proposal under consideration in the House could mean about $760,000 in cuts to PCOA, on top of another $413,000 in cuts earlier this year, requiring a reduction in services and staff, Murphy said.
“The services were never sufficient to support people before, and now we are facing massive budget cuts,” said Diana Edwards, a program director at PCOA.
“We’ve been successful in keeping people on the brink. But now as our funding is jeopardized, they’re going to fall over, and what are we going to do?”
State Sen. Jonathan Paton knows budget cuts will hurt vulnerable seniors, but he said lawmakers are hamstrung by the economy.
“It’s absolutely difficult to make these decisions, affecting people in a vulnerable situation,” the Tucson Republican said. “You’re choosing between seniors and kids and neither choice is easy.”
The Legislature is forced to fund a $10 billion budget with $6.5 billion, he said, and cuts are unavoidable.
For PCOA, cuts may mean a reduction in services that include emergency home repair, transportation, personal hygiene services, mortgage counseling, job training and other help. The agency serves thousands of Pima County seniors and their family caregivers.
“What is that train wreck that is coming just around the corner?” Edwards asked. “What’s that going to look like? We know it’s going to be messy and ugly and there’s nothing we can do to prevent it.”
She worries that with some clients, cuts in services are a matter of life and death.
“It’s who lives and who dies, literally, because we’re talking about food and shelter,” she said.
Many seeking help since the economic downturn have been self-sufficient all their lives, she said. Some live in high-end retirement neighborhoods and have lost investments and retirement income.
“We’re seeing people who have never needed help before,” Edwards said. “They’re desperate.”
PCOA official: Cuts more costly in long run
For 42 years, Pima Council on Aging has helped older Tucsonans with services they need to survive.
Last year, the agency provided nearly 375,000 meals, 22,000 rides, hundreds of emergency home repairs and countless baths, housekeeping services and other help.
The agency operates on a budget of about $8.3 million, with 85 percent provided by federal, state, county and city funding, said Jim Murphy, president and CEO of PCOA.
Based on a bill passed by the Appropriations Committee in the Arizona House of Representatives Tuesday, the agency expects to lose about $760,000 in funding from the state this coming fiscal year, Murphy said. It lost another $413,000 from the state in March.
Under the current budget, PCOA received about $3.2 million in state funds. For the fiscal year that starts July 1, that amount could be $2.5 million.
“We know we’re going to have to reduce services and staff,” Murphy said.
PCOA is the designated Area Agency on Aging, coordinating services for older adults and their families through local agencies. The services allow older Tucsonans to stay in their homes longer.
Murphy said program cuts will be more costly in the long run. “By providing these services, we are able to delay on an average of three years folks going into care,” he said.
While a nursing home for an indigent senior can cost the state $3,500 per month, PCOA services cost about $250 to $300 per month, Murphy said.
With the spiraling economy and increases in foreclosures and unemployment, PCOA is getting more requests for help.
“People are calling in and saying they have never had to seek services, but they now need help to buy food or even to pay for their homeowners association fee,” said Debra Adams, chief operating officer at PCOA.
Many are distraught when they find there are not enough services.
“People assume there has been a social safety net,” said Diana Edwards, a program director at PCOA. “There never was much of a net. It had great big giant holes. And now it’s a thread and people are shocked.”
In the past couple of years, growing numbers of seniors have taken in adult children who have lost jobs, or they are raising grandchildren.
“That Social Security check has covered the older person, but it’s not going to stretch for the added mouths to feed,” Edwards said.
While state dollars are dwindling, it appears federal dollars are stable. But often state dollars are used as a required match for federal funding, which could jeopardize some grants, Adams said.
The good news, according to the agency, is that nutrition programs, including delivered meals, appear to be safe for now. Stimulus dollars have been earmarked for senior nutrition.
But Adams said cuts will force agencies to make difficult choices.
“Is it more important to bathe people? Is it more important to repair their homes? Is it more important to make sure they can stay on Medicare? Is it more important to help caregivers? How do we decide who gets the service and who doesn’t?”
She said families are not looking for handouts.
“Take the person who’s providing everything for his father except for the twice weekly bath,” Adams said. “That’s all they’re asking. They are not looking for freebies.”
Not enough money for homes needing repairs
The roof on the old trailer leaks, and the swamp cooler hasn’t worked in years.
A shattered window is boarded up, and bare wires on the roof pose a fire hazard.
The toilet in the tiny bathroom wobbles precariously.
The home of Billy and Loma Brown is in desperate need of repair.
“Things are really falling apart, and I can’t fix this on my own,” says homeowner Billy Brown, 71, who is ill and disabled. For 35 years, he has lived in the South Side trailer with his wife, Loma, 70.
Thanks to Pima Council on Aging, the Browns got help this week fixing up some of the more urgent problems, allowing them to live safely in their own home.
But expected cuts in state funding to PCOA could leave older Tucsonans like the Browns with nowhere to turn for help.
“It’s so hard to find people who will help you out, and it sort of leaves you stranded,” said Loma Brown, who survives with her husband on about $1,100 in Social Security each month.
Last year, PCOA provided emergency home repair grants of up to $750 per household to 683 Pima County residents. It also provided grants of up to $4,000 to 65 residents for more major repairs.
Most of the people receiving the home repairs – 77 percent – were older women.
But budget cuts threaten to gut the program.
Volunteers Kristi Bowman and Dan Portice with the nonprofit organization Community Home Repair Projects of Arizona spent a couple of days at the Browns’ trailer. PCOA contracts with the agency to do repairs.
They replaced the motor and pump on the swamp cooler and rewired it. They patched the leaky roof.
They fixed the window and installed grab bars in the bathroom to prevent Billy Brown from falling as he gets in and out of the tub. Twice the fire department has been called to help him up.
“This helps out a whole lot,” said Brown, who became medically disabled in 1980 after several on-the-job injuries at a transportation company.
Bowman said there are more people who need help than there are grants.
“It gives me a whole different perspective on what it means to have a roof over your head,” she said of her volunteer work.
Agency seeing more suicides as elderly lose homes, hope
They come to Pima Council on Aging hoping mortgage counseling will save their homes from foreclosure.
But it soon becomes obvious that some seniors are nearing the end of their rope.
Mortgage counselors at PCOA “will see four or five people a day who say if something can’t be done, I’m going to kill myself,” said Donna Carender, who heads training through the Older Adults Suicide Prevention program at PCOA.
She worries that recent economic troubles combined with health problems and isolation many seniors experience are resulting in more suicides.
Tucson has the third highest suicide rate in U.S., out of 54 large metro areas, and the older you are, the more at risk you are, Carender said.
“It’s going to get worse,” she said. “We’re hearing more and more people that are losing everything. Older adults had enough stressors on them in the first place. To take more stressors and not have an idea of where to go to get help, we’re going to see (suicide rates) jump really high.”
Carender trains social workers, meal delivery volunteers, home health care workers, family members and others on what to look for in a suicidal senior.
She also trains people to do interventions. Some take place at the PCOA office.
She said if a senior can be connected with solutions to problems, often the desperation can be alleviated.
Carender advises people about how to talk to seniors about suicide, using the word, so seniors can identify who they would tell if they were considering it.
“Most people don’t want to be dead. They just don’t want to be alive right now,” she said. “We don’t want them to take that step to get rid of that problem that’s going to be permanent.”
Program helps older people looking for work
Dan Toth is certain of one thing: He has no desire to be a Wal-Mart greeter.
But armed with a master’s degree and a lifetime of work experience, Toth, 59, is finding it difficult to get a job in this economy.
So he’s turned to Pima Council on Aging’s Mature Worker Connection for help.
“It’s kind of painful to think of yourself as a mature worker, but I considered it an opportunity to build a network,” said Toth, who has worked as a remodeling project manager, a business developer and a youth corrections worker. He also owned his own business.
“Part of my dream job would be working at management level at a nonprofit or a private company,” Toth said.
Since January, Toth, the married father of four grown children, has been optimistic about three jobs. He’s had one interview, and no job. He spends his free time volunteering.
Roger Forrester, program administrator for the free Mature Worker Connection, said calls from older residents like Toth who are looking for work have quadrupled in the past 18 months.
“People are worried about outliving their retirement income,” he said. “These are people who thought they had it made. They are desperate for work, at a time when employers are laying off.”
The program, among the first of its kind in the country, has an annual budget of $143,000 and relies on volunteers. It is unknown how cuts in the state budget will impact the program, but Jim Murphy, president and CEO of PCOA, said it is likely that it could lose some funding.
About 750 older workers have been placed in jobs since the program began in 2006.
“They come from every walk of life and profession,” said Forrester, who started the program after he retired. “We’ve had doctors, a judge – you name it.”
Half are seeking jobs in their former professions. The others are looking for new careers.
About 54 percent of people in the program are women, some who have never been employed.
The program is open to workers ages 50 and older. Some applicants are in their 80s.
Forrester said many older job hunters feel “invisible.”
The program connects potential workers with free job training and helps employers understand the value of mature workers, Forrester said.
Currently, 507 employers are registered, including Raytheon and the University of Arizona.
Toth, meanwhile, hopes the right company will appreciate his years of experience.
“You have to be optimistic just to get through it,” he said. “It’s really a tough time out there.”
‘It’s so hard to find people who will help you out, and it sort of leaves you stranded.’