Seniors: Essay Archive

By Shirley Bondon, 2018

Former Executive Director, Aging Commission of the Mid-South


"...the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped."

—Last speech of Hubert H. Humphrey

Living a long, productive life is the goal of many. Numerous research papers have been written that seek to answer the key questions on how to add years to one’s life—What should we eat and drink? What is the perfect exercise regimen? What should we avoid? We seek these answers so that we may experience the twilight of life; thus, aging while not growing old is the goal. Unfortunately, many seniors in Memphis are not achieving the goal. 

According to the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability (TCAD) in 2018, nearly 126,000 adults over 65 years of age were living in Shelby County. Health-wise, 84 percent of these seniors need diabetes management. According to physicians, a senior with diabetes is likely to have high blood pressure, be overweight and at risk for a heart attack. 

Six percent of the seniors living in Shelby County visited the emergency department of a health facility due to a fall. The National Council on Aging (NCOA) reports that falls are the leading cause of death, injury and hospital admissions among the elderly population. According to NCOA, one out of every four Americans aged 65 and older falls every year. They fall due to a decline in physical fitness, impaired vision, the side-effects of medications and chronic diseases. Thirty-seven percent of seniors in Shelby County have four or more chronic diseases. 

Falls are caused by the environmental hazards in the home such as poor lighting, clutter, areas of disrepair, loose carpets, slick floors and lack of safety equipment; and behavioral hazards that include trying to perform tasks many seniors are physically incapable of performing. Seniors often fail to recognize their physical inabilities and therefore often fail to modify their behavior to compensate for their inabilities such as insisting on doing laundry and carrying a heavy laundry basket that many others can carry without incident. Some of these falls are likely the cause of the one or more preventable hospitalizations attributed to 24 percent of seniors living in Shelby County. Fortunately, more than 111,000 seniors are enrolled in Medicare, so they receive some assistance with the cost associated with addressing their numerous health issues; but because 14 percent don’t have a vehicle, they may struggle to obtain transportation to see their physician.

The quality of life of Shelby County seniors is highly compromised. Eleven percent of seniors age 65 years and older live 100 percent below the federal poverty level. Thus, for the 30 percent of seniors who live alone, many have an annual income of less than $12,140.00. In 2017, the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculated that a living annual salary for one person living in Shelby County would be approximately $22,422.00. Add to this that 29 percent of seniors are burdened with housing costs that they cannot afford for homes they proudly purchased and have been paying for most of their adult lives. They refuse to leave these homes because they are struggling to keep them to pass on to family members.

The Food Environment Index for seniors living in Shelby County is 5.4. The Food Environment Index measures the availability of affordable and nutritious food options in a community. The index ranges from 0 (worst) to 10 (best). At 5.4, Shelby County is well below the average of 7. This is a clear indicator that many seniors do not receive the quantity and quality of nutritious food needed to maintain their health.

Finally, research indicates that one in ten seniors could be a victim of abuse and neglect. Elder abuse affects all communities including Shelby County on many levels—from public health to civic participation to economic resources.

Despite their physical and financial condition, seniors living in Shelby County have been and continue to be servers. Nineteen percent are veterans and 66 percent are civically engaged. 

Hubert Humphrey’s quote above speaks of the moral test of government, however, the same test applies to society—how we treat those in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and persons with a disability is our moral test. Today, we’re scoring below average; however, there are many things we can do to score better. The number of seniors living in Shelby County is expected to grow 29 percent over the next 10 to 12 years. As the number increases, so does the urgency to respond to reverse the trends described above. Changing these trends will require a collaborative community response that involves everyday folks working side-by-side with advocates, business people, educators, healthcare providers, and government.