The Oldest Generation—Income, Location, Disabilities, and Health Insurance

Last time we introduced a Census Bureau report that describes some characteristics of the oldest segment of our population—those 90 years old or older (90+). The group is small, mostly women, and mostly widowed. Still, about three-quarters of them live in households. Less than one quarter are institutionalized.

The median income in the group was $14,760 (2008 dollars)—that’s annual, per person, personal income. For men, it was $20,133, and for women, it was $13,580. Social Security has become nearly universal among this group: 92.3% of them receive it, and it is about 48%, or almost half, of the median personal income. The rest comes from investments, public assistance, other retirement income, or other sources.

During the same time, the median annual per person income in the US was about $27,500. The 90+ group has a per person income of about half the overall population.

Many 90+ people experience poverty, yet the rates are comparable to other groups in the US. The overall poverty rate for 90+ people is 14.5%. The poverty rate for children under 18, however, was 18.2%—significantly higher.

Somewhat surprisingly, the group experiencing the least poverty (9.6%) are people between 65 and 89 years—the younger part of the retired and elderly population. That group is doing even better than the adult, working group (ages 18 to 64), which experiences 11.8% poverty.

Ranking people by poverty rate, children experience the highest rate, then those 90 and over, then adults of working age, and finally, experiencing the lowest poverty rate, those between 65 and 89 years.

Our oldest citizens are not spread evenly around the country. Five states have 37% of the total 90+ population: California (186.4m), Florida (141.9m), New York (130.5m), Texas (96.7m), and Pennsylvania (94.4m). But several rural states have higher percentages of people in the 90+ group, including, North Dakota, Iowa, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Kansas. Two states, Connecticut and Massachusetts, although not as rural as the others just mentioned, also have higher concentrations of 90+ people. The story appears to be that as young people leave some of the rural areas, their older relatives stay behind, in their homes.

Arlene, at about 90, at a family reunion. Our oldest family member.

At the same time, about 85% of the people 90 and over report limitations or disabilities. It’s hard to run errands (68% of the group), which often means the person doesn’t drive anymore, and it’s hard to climb stairs (66% of the group)—those are the two most frequently reported limitations. Other common ones include dressing and bathing (46%), cognitive difficulties (40%), hearing (43.3%), and seeing (25.5%).

Although suffering from disabilities, almost all (98.8%) of the people 90 and over have medicare, and most (65%) have supplemental insurance. Comprehensive health insurance eases the impact of lower incomes during our oldest years.

No doubt many persons in the 90+ generation are suffering in major ways—that’s an almost certain inference from the data on limitations or disabilities. Growing old is not for the faint at heart, as they say. Yet the oldest among us are living in households, not nursing homes; they are likely out of poverty; and they benefit from health insurance. Given how hard life can be in any period, there’s some comfort in seeing that the typical persons among our oldest citizens may be doing okay.

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