New York’s 65+ population is expected to grow five times faster than the city overall during this decade, raising challenges for housing, healthcare, social services, workplace justice and more. So far, few candidates are saying much about it.

Adi Talwar

An early evening games of dominoes being played in one of the tree canopied seating areas at Serviam Gardens, an affordable housing complex for seniors located on 198th Street in the Bedford Park neighborhood of the Bronx.

Older New Yorkers did not get COVID-19 more than other people. But they died from it at shockingly high rates. And the death toll only begins to capture the impact of the pandemic on older New York. While the shutdown of services and social isolation took a toll on everyone, senior citizens were especially hard hit. 

The next mayor will be charged with addressing the broad impact of the pandemic, and taking steps to avoid death and dislocation in future outbreaks, especially concerning older people. However, that’s only part of the to-do list advocates think about when it comes to preparing for the aging city that demographers have long predicted. Over this decade, the 65+ population of New York City is expected to grow by 15.9 percent, three times faster than the under 18 population and five times faster than the city overall.

During the annual budget fight at City Hall, the focus of aging policy is on senior centers and senior meals—vital parts of the city’s fabric of services that were the subject of controversy before COVID-19 affected both. The question of how generously to fund those services, along with how to improve them (language access being a big issue) will be an issue this budget season as it has been in recent ones. According to a budget briefing provided by the City Council’s budget division, the demand for senior centers outstrips supply in more that half the city’s 59 community districts. City funding for senior citizen mental-health issues, case management and naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs) are also perennial points of discussion. 

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While the city’s Department for the Aging —which oversees those senior center and senior meals services—is crucial, other agencies also play huge roles in aging policy. 

Housing is a major concern for older New Yorkers, involving the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s affordable housing plan, the New York City Housing Authority’s handling of senior residents—whether they live in what’s called “senior housing” or not—and the seniors who have to use the Department of Homeless Services’ shelter system. 

The Commission on Human Rights polices discrimination against older New Yorkers, especially in the workplace, where advocates say ageism is rampant.

“Over half the of the people with full time jobs over age 50 will eventually be forced out against their will, though many of these separations will then be relabeled as ‘retirement,'” says Dr. Ruth Finkelstein, executive director of the Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging at CUNY’s Hunter College. “Age discrimination kicks too many people out of the labor force before they are ready to leave, putting them at risk of running out of money and of losses in identity and purpose in life.”

The Department of Finance oversees the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption or SCRIE program, which some would like to see expanded. Besides managing SNAP benefits that many seniors use to put food on the table, the Human Resources Administration also administers a home-care program.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has pitched launching a local retirement security program to provide a financial foundation for New Yorkers who either don’t have other savings or means of retirement support, or don’t have enough of them. That’s a real need, says Elana Kieffer, acting director of the Center for Healthy Aging and The New York Academy of Medicine.

“More than one-third of New Yorkers age 65+ who have worked their entire lives now have to live on a fixed income of less than $25,000 a year in one of the most expensive cities in the world,” Kieffer says.

But aging policy crosses into agencies and programs that aren’t targeted at older people but where aging New Yorkers have a lot at stake: Within the transit systems, for example, buses are especially important to seniors. It also involves agencies beyond the city’s reach, like the federal-state Medicaid program and the immigration system, where undocumented seniors face special challenges. Some aging policies affect people who aren’t yet seniors, like the people—many of them women of color, some of them underpaid—who work in the industries that feed and care for older New York, and the family members who serve as caregivers to seniors who are infirm.

“As our city emerges from the COVID-19 crisis, we will need bold policy solutions and investments in a true community-based system of care for older New Yorkers, one that allows all of us to tap into our momentum as we age,” says Katelyn Andrews, director of public policy at LiveOn NY. “Action will be needed around key issues facing older adults, including hunger, housing instability, social isolation, the digital divide, and more, but also around ensuring that city contracts do not actively fund wages that will all but ensure our human services workers themselves age into poverty while caring for New Yorkers in need. Solutions exists, but it will take political will to ensure equity across the lifespan.”

What’s more, advocates say, the city’s aging agenda is about more than agency budgets or particular programs—and it’s not just about solving problems. The stigmas and stereotypes around aging are as important a concern as how much to spend for meals-on-wheels, because those cultural tropes of infirmity help suppress the considerable political power that the growing number of older New Yorkers should enjoy. Older New Yorkers are a potential resource—as workers, volunteers, mentors and leaders, that the city would be wise to tap into.

“Start by seeing the 1.7 million diverse population over age 60 as part of the future and invest in city supports accordingly. This would bring expanded economic opportunity and social justice which we New Yorkers pride ourselves on,” says Bobbie Sackman, a veteran advocate for older New Yorkers. “We bring resilience, skills, experience and perspective to the table. We are anchors in families and communities.”

Last week, the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY hosted and City Limits moderated a panel on aging issues. It was targeted to reporters but is a valuable primer to any interested in grasping the topic.

On April 14 at 9:30 a.m., City Limits will join LiveOn NY, AARP NY, United Neighborhood Houses, Hunter Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging, NYAM, and Citymeals in hosting a forum for mayoral candidates on aging issues. So far, only two mayoral candidates—Shaun Donovan and Maya Wiley—have released plans that address aging issues specifically at any length.

“The older community is in crisis. Without attention and intervention from the next mayor, we could see a wave of our older neighbors facing hunger, poverty, and physical and mental health issues at unprecedented levels,” the executive director at United Neighborhood Houses, Susan Stamler, told City Limits.

“A comprehensive planning effort to coordinate citywide agencies and maximize resources is a no-brainer,” Stamler added. “And investing in robust aging services systems to not only support older New Yorkers but also harness their incredible talent and experience will have massive long-term benefits for the city.”

City Limits’ Age Justice series explores the issues facing a graying New York. It is supported by the New York Foundation.

One thought on “COVID-19 Raises Broader Questions About NYC’s Ability to Age

  1. It is absolutely imperative that the Mayoral Candidates, as well as the next crop of City Councilmembers understand the magnitude of the growth of our older adult population and develop a plan to not only meet the needs of these folks, but to capitalize on the most skilled, educated and experienced retirees to grace our city.

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