Austin is a city defined by growth. We are growing larger, more innovative and more progressive. The seemingly unstoppable pace of growth has made us a national icon.
But a serious problem is looming. We are also growing older, sicker and more segregated, as shown by a recent study that ranked Austin as the most economically segregated city in the nation.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler has spearheaded admirable efforts to address the growing disparity. But the low-income senior population seems to have been left behind and remains outside of the spotlight.
Travis County’s senior population is expected to grow 39 percent during the next five years, reaching an estimated 134,000 people over the age of 65 by 2019. An alarming percentage of these people are poor and vulnerable. Many have to contend with the difficulties that come with aging, and many more have neither the family nor financial resources to help shoulder those burdens.
The increasing cost of living, particularly housing costs, especially hurts our poorest and most vulnerable. Seniors struggle with the question of how to remain in their homes and age in place while expenses grow ever higher. Health status worsens and our senior population suffers.
Sadly, this is borne out by statistics. According to the Aging Services Council of Central Texas, 28,000 older adults in Travis County are malnourished or at risk of being malnourished. About half of hospitalized elderly people and those in rehab facilities are also malnourished. Frail seniors find themselves faced with the choice of moving in with family members who may be unable to afford it or moving to a nursing home.
Exacerbating the problem, there is a serious shortfall in the amount of services available to vulnerable seniors. If people want to age in place, they are forced to contend with a fractured service delivery system that is difficult to navigate during the best of times and almost impossible during the worst.
In addition, many of Austin’s low-income seniors are Spanish-speaking minorities. The difficulties faced when trying to navigate this jumbled bureaucracy combined with the struggle to find care that is culturally competent has created an enormous obstacle for many.
We are in danger of leaving our low-income, frail senior population to flounder. But all is not lost.
Community-based managed long-term services and support programs offer what appears to be a successful, viable way to fill the gap in affordable care. The programs are designed to help seniors remain in the community and prevent hospitalization for as long as possible, thereby reducing overall costs and increasing quality of life.
Of particular interest to Austin is something called the Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly, or PACE, and another program called STAR+PLUS Home and Community Based Services Waiver. State and local leaders would be wise to continue to support these programs.
Finally, there is the problem of affordable housing. The real estate market in Austin is growing rapidly, with home prices showing no signs of hitting a ceiling. These rapid increases in home valuation can lead to a property tax burden that is untenable, especially for low- and fixed-income seniors.
The affordable assisted living landscape in Austin is sparse, and the waitlists for affordable senior housing units at places such as the RBJ Center are long — often more than 18 months. City leaders must find a way to align affordable senior housing with programs that help seniors age outside of nursing homes.
As a city that prides itself on balancing our weird, progressive heart with our newfound business nature, we can and should do more to address the needs of our most vulnerable. The first step is to bring the problem into the light and make use of the immense political, social and economic brain trust we have in our amazing city.
Jacqueline Angel is a professor of public affairs and sociology at The University of Texas at Austin. Lindsey Zischkale is a graduate student in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin.
Consider joining the authors at the Imagine Quality of Life for All Austin Ages’ Eldercare Summit on April 12 at the LBJ School of Public Affairs on the UT campus where the public can weigh in on the possibilities.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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