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For some elders, pride before food

Email|Print| Text size + By John Guilfoil
Globe Correspondent / January 31, 2008

Advocates for the elderly are pushing hard to get area senior citizens in need of assistance to apply for the federal food stamp program, but pride and embarrassment stand in the way, they say.

Many seniors who never had to ask the government for help during their prime working years now find themselves struggling with lower incomes. As a result, it's harder for them to make ends meet while juggling medical needs and prescriptions, utility bills, housing and food costs, and other routine expenses.

Living on Social Security payments, sometimes supplemented by a pension, retirees may be eligible for aid for the first time. But many do not seek the help, now that they no longer work full time.

"It's very difficult to get people to overcome the stigma that seems to be attached to the program, even though it can benefit people," Kristin Kiesel, director of the Sudbury Council on Aging, said of food stamps. "The whole history of the program makes people reluctant even if it could benefit them."

The local effort is part of a nationwide campaign by the US Department of Agriculture to get more seniors on food stamps. In recent weeks, the agency has sent out posters and pamphlets and had public service radio and television spots aired. It also has streamlined the application process, and allows people to apply online or over the telephone.

State officials have also enhanced efforts to bring eligible senior citizens into the food stamp program, providing resources such as additional training for those who assist the elderly with applications, and more information and access to the program.

The efforts are important in a state such as Massachusetts, where participation in the food stamp program has historically been low, according to the USDA.

The department reports that in 2005, Massachusetts was ranked 49th in the country for participation by those eligible for food stamps, with just 12.8 percent of the seniors living below the poverty level enrolled in the program.

In community after community, advocates say, the story is the same - when seniors think of the aid program, they envision "the poor person" with a book of food stamps, tearing out the individual paper coupons to pay for their groceries while the other customers in line stare impatiently.

This image lingers, they said, even though the current system utilizes a plastic debit card, much like a Visa or MasterCard, and using it is fast and discreet.

A number of area senior centers, including Sudbury's, are working to debunk myths about the program and remove the social stigma about receiving help from the government. The message is simple: Food stamps provide food.

"Food stamps are not welfare," Kiesel said. "The program is designed to help people get nutritious food that they otherwise might not be able to afford." So far, however, no one in Sudbury has gone through the whole sign-up process, officials said.

At the Milford Senior Center, the message was conveyed in a recent issue of the Elder Milfordian, a newsletter mailed to the community's 2,800 households with older residents. But as it is with tax, medical, and fuel assistance, Milford seniors are often too embarrassed to seek help, officials say.

"It's been our history that seniors are a little bit shy about applying," said Ruth Anne Bleakney, director of the Milford Senior Center. "They don't want anyone to see them come into the senior center and have an application."

Bleakney said center officials have noticed that some of the food stamp applications left out for people have been picked up. But because seniors are reluctant to talk about food stamps, it isn't possible to tell whether there has been an upswing in applications for the program. The reticence creates another problem for advocates.

"It's hard to know who needs help, because they're not going to tell you," Bleakney said.

Natick seniors are seeing a targeted marketing campaign from their senior center, with posters highlighting the program and brochures and forms available to pick up.

"Sometimes it's an issue of awareness, not being aware of what benefits are available," said Moira Munns, director of human services for the Natick Council on Aging. "But sometimes even awareness is not enough to shift attitudes."

In Newton, officials with the Senior Services Department have found some success, after promoting the food stamps program for several years as a regular part of their work with the city's elderly.

"Every time we meet a senior, we do an assessment and part of that assessment is seeing if there are any entitlement programs that they are not accessing, that they should be accessing, and food stamps is a big one," said Kathy Laufer, a clinical social worker for the city.

Newton treats the food stamps program like Social Security or Medicare - something that seniors have paid taxes into and have earned the benefits in return.

"We educate seniors that this is a program they are entitled to. They paid taxes to this when they are younger, and this is not a charity," Laufer said. Several seniors have signed up for food stamps in Newton after listening to a presentation.

To qualify for food stamps, an individual's net monthly income should not exceed $851. For a household of two, the maximum figure is $1,141. Seniors can deduct many expenses, such as doctor's bills, over-the-counter and prescription drugs, attendant or visiting nurse care, and dental care, from their gross income when determining whether they qualify for food stamps. Even seniors who own their home or get meals delivered to them through a government program may be eligible, officials say.

Information about applying for food stamps can be obtained by calling the USDA's toll-free telephone number for Massachusetts, 866-950-3663, or online at www.fns.usda.gov.

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