LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Getting old in the United States was hard before the pandemic, a country with few supports for the elderly. While seniors are among the first in line for the COVID vaccine, federal and state budgets have become increasingly strained over the last nine months. And that means safety nets for the elderly are unraveling quickly. Sally Herships reports from New York, a state with more than 3 million residents who are 65 or older.
SALLY HERSHIPS, BYLINE: During World War II as a girl in a small town in Italy, Rose Frusciante had malaria. She lost three siblings to the disease. She's seen a lot.
ROSE FRUSCIANTE: I was 85 in October.
HERSHIPS: Wow, that's a long time. That's a long time (laughter).
FRUSCIANTE: Yeah. Honey, I went through the war in Italy.
HERSHIPS: Afterwards, she and her young parents left and traveled to the U.S. on a boat. She learned English, got a job as a dressmaker, a husband. They settled in New York, had a son and sent him to college. Coming from a small town where she couldn't even buy aspirin, she now felt like she was living the American dream.
FRUSCIANTE: Fixed up my house - so beautiful. I felt like a princess.
HERSHIPS: But now Frusciante lives alone in an apartment. Her husband died last year. And after decades working a sewing machine, she needed a knee replacement. Frusciante uses a walker now. Still, she was managing. She would put her laundry in a bag and throw it down the stairs to avoid carrying it. But then the pandemic hit. And so far, 8 out of 10 deaths are seniors like her.
FRUSCIANTE: And I'm afraid to go out. I do now need help.
HERSHIPS: Still, despite achieving the American dream, Frusciante is now living on about $2,000 a month, just enough to cover her bills. She can't afford a housekeeper. So she put her name on a waiting list for a part-time aide paid for by the state. Since the pandemic began, demand for help for seniors is ballooning. At the same time, New York has a budget deficit of billions. And the system meant to help protect seniors is straining. Even with recent federal aid, it's tens of millions of dollars short. There are now 11,000 seniors waiting for help.
JAY BHATTACHARYA: In many ways, the experience of older Americans mimics the experience of the rest of the population.
HERSHIPS: Jay Bhattacharya teaches medicine and studies aging at Stanford. He says a lot depends on how much someone saved during their working years.
BHATTACHARYA: I think it mainly is rich versus poor. I mean, in some ways, the ones that had saved earlier and had had a lot of retirement security are doing better.
HERSHIPS: And there's another problem. In Mount Vernon, N.Y., where Frusciante lives, the Department of Senior Programs and Services says many home health aides are afraid of riding the bus to work. They also don't want to catch COVID. And if seniors won't go out, and family or aides aren't going in, a troublesome snowball can start forming - isolation and loneliness. Beth Finkel is state director of AARP New York.
BETH FINKEL: I don't know if folks realize, but our research shows that being isolated is equal to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
HERSHIPS: According to the CDC, isolation and loneliness can cause an overwhelming seeming list of problems - an increased risk of dementia, stroke, heart disease, even suicide. Just imagine being sealed off from the outside world, no one to squeeze your hand or remind you to swallow a pill from one of those little, plastic cups. And Finkel says another kind of safety net is also disintegrating - the kind of social interaction seniors typically have with a waiter at a coffee shop or a teller at a bank.
FINKEL: If people can't get out to visit those sites, then who's going to be able to say, oh, no, Mrs. S doesn't have a winter coat on today.
HERSHIPS: It's clear from hearing her story that Rose Frusciante is tough. Still, is an 85-year-old who survived a world war and malaria afraid of COVID?
FRUSCIANTE: I'm not scared to die. I mean, we're all going to die. I'm afraid to go in a place, in a hospital clinic, and I am dying. And I couldn't even see my family.
HERSHIPS: She's been waiting for help for three months. For now, there's nothing Frusciante can do but wait. For NPR News, I'm Sally Herships.
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