Academic journal article Care Management Journals

Sunset Years in Sunny Florida: Experiences of Homelessness among the Elderly

Academic journal article Care Management Journals

Sunset Years in Sunny Florida: Experiences of Homelessness among the Elderly

Article excerpt

Many people think of Florida as the Mecca for the retired and elderly, where old people spend their days on the golf course and their evenings at the mahjongg table or perhaps the shuffleboard court. Those who have traveled through The Villages, an immense elderly community northwest of Orlando, will recognize that this image of Florida's elderly is not entirely without foundation. At the same time, in Florida and around the nation, many elderly people are not worried as much about their golf handicap as they are about being poor and homeless. Although at present the elderly make up only a small portion of the total poor and homeless populations, their numbers are growing as the population continues to age (Wright, Donley, & Dietz, 2009).

This article culls insights from focus groups and interviews that I have conducted with poor and homeless elderly Floridians over the past 4 years. Most of my participants are from central Florida, but several are from Miami-Dade County. Data were collected in emergency and transitional homeless shelters, subsidized housing complexes for seniors, and permanent housing complexes for the formerly homeless and at feeding programs. These stories highlight and dramatize the many issues that poor and homeless elderly people across the nation face in their daily lives.

DEFINITION OF ELDERLY

When discussing the elderly poor and homeless, it is important to clarify exactly who is being discussed. In the general vernacular, elderly means those who are 65 or older, but among the homeless, it has been suggested that the elderly category begins much earlier, as early as age 50 in many studies. Indeed, more and more researchers use 50 as their starting point because by age 50, many homeless people already exhibit the signs and symptoms of advancing age and yet are not eligible for programs such as Medicare and might not be for another 15 years. Because living as a homeless person ages one prematurely, much contemporary research defines the elderly homeless as those 50 years old and older (see, e.g., National Coalition for the Homeless, 2006). Many programs for the poor and housed elderly are also serving people under age 65; some programs begin at age 55, others at age 62-an explicit recognition that social and economic conditions can strongly influence the aging process. For purposes of the present work, I treat as elderly poor housed and homeless people 50 years of age or older.

STORIES FROM AN EMERGENCY HOMELESS SHELTER

There are two ways that elderly people come to be homeless: they can be longtime homeless people who age into the category of elderly, or they can be elderly people who first become homeless after they are elderly (Wright et al., 2009). Seven of the nine elderly (over 50) participants in a focus group at an emergency homeless shelter in Orlando, Florida, were experiencing homelessness for the first time (i.e., were in the middle of their first homeless episode). While their specific reasons for becoming homeless were all individualized, two general themes were present: fallout from a declining economy and the loss of loved ones. Many of the participants had lived their entire lives in precarious situations, such as with roommates or family members or maintaining an apartment while working two hourly-wage jobs. Many had never been in a stable residential or financial situation. Once the economy began to falter, friends or relatives who were willing to take them in and provide housing could no longer afford to do this (or chose for some reason not to allow the situation to continue). In addition, economic decline wiped out many of the hourly wage jobs that my participants relied on. In still other cases, participants had spent their adult lives caring for family members who then died and whose deaths eliminated a former income source (e.g., a pension), with homelessness the immediate result.

Rosenheck, Bassuk, and Salomon (1999) and others have reported that the death of loved ones is a common pathway to homelessness among elderly people. …

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