This article is part of a quarterly series giving voice to the perspectives of individuals with lived experiences as they share their opinions on a particular topic. The authors of this column facilitated a focus group of their peers to inform this writing. The authors are served by Services for the UnderServed (SUS) a New York City-based nonprofit that is committed to giving every New Yorker the tools they can use to lead a life of purpose.
Relishing the simple joys of life. Spending time doing activities that make us happy. Getting through the day “without any drama.” Building fulfilling relationships with family and friends. Planning for the last stages of our lives and even our own mortality. These are some of the things that came up when three of us, tenants of S:US supported housing and all over the age of fifty, gathered to discuss our needs as older adults.
Our priorities have shifted vastly from where they once were. Collectively, we have lived through homelessness, substance use challenges, incarceration, and service in the US Marine Corps. During the most difficult years, these experiences immersed us in subcultures and lifestyles where survival became our main priority. This slowly isolated us from family and friends, sometimes for decades, severing relationships with people who cared about us the most. Through S:US’ supported housing and the stability is has granted us, we have finally had the opportunity to build back what was sacrificed during the most turbulent and unstable years of our pasts. Now, in our advanced years, we have new capabilities, opportunities, and goals we want to achieve with a new urgency. But we also experience new limitations. Our discussion took us through these contrasting elements, and more. Here is some of what came up during our conversation:
Accessing Quality Healthcare Can be Challenging
As our ages advance, maintaining our physical and mental health has taken precedence in our lives. We work to regularly see our providers, maintain our sobriety, or address health issues we haven’t been able to address in the past. In some ways, we are happy with the care we receive. For one of us, a veteran, our mental and physical healthcare and medications are free as part of our veteran benefits, and easy to access in a central location at the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system. For others, access has been challenging and frustrating. Having limited incomes often restricts our care selections and choices. One of us spoke about waiting eight months to receive his dentures because the free transportation service he was offered was unreliable, leading to several missed and rescheduled appointments. Proximity and ease of access is central to our ability to receive the care we need. This is something we feel our service providers should be aware of when recommending providers and scheduling appointments.
“I’ve been trying to get an MRI on my knee for about 20 years. I hurt my knee when I was 14 years old, and to this day I can’t squat down. I’ve never gotten an MRI because they would always send me for an x-ray instead. I did physical therapy for a few months, then they sent me for an MRI and the appointment was far from my house, and it was the day of a Nor’easter. I went all the way out there and the lady filled out the paperwork wrong and I never got the MRI.”
Poverty and Financial Hardship
Another source of frustration for us, which we also observe in those around us, is economic hardship and poverty. While housing is a huge source of stability and security for us, many of us have very limited incomes even with our social security and retirement benefits. We spoke about the struggle of finding employment at older ages and the challenge that presents. Without a lot of disposable income for transportation and other activities, it’s easy to become socially isolated and spend the majority of our time alone at home. Because of our turbulent pasts, limited job history has had a severe impact on our economic security today.
“I was getting early retirement but I only put in 12 or 13 years of taxable income. Other than that, I was selling drugs, hustling, all kinds of stuff, and there’s nothing to get from that. I was getting about $300 and change from retirement. My rent was $15 for the first year, then it became $85 and I had about $60 to $70 for ConEd [electricity and gas utility bill], that means I’m already $200 into a $300 income. So, I never have any money. And sometimes it’s gone three days later, and you have to wait another 30 days. Those are real life issues.”
But one of us mentioned that their supported housing building has its own urban farm and garden where tenants help to grow vegetables, herbs, and flowers. S:US’ Urban Farms program offers stipends to anyone who works on a farm. “It’s like a paycheck. It’s just something to give you an incentive to do something other than waste time. And time is a very treasured thing.”
Struggling with Isolation and Rebuilding Relationships
Something that many people in our age group face is social isolation and a lack of consistent, meaningful connections with people. Some of us feel particularly susceptible to this because of our limited income. It is something we see in others in our age group. Many of us have lost relationships with family and friends from years of homelessness, incarceration, addiction, and other challenges. Knowing that isolation and stagnation can be detrimental to our physical and mental health, socializing and being active are things we welcome into our lives. Again, having housing stability has helped us take the first steps in this process. For one, we have resources through our supported housing buildings and other S:US programs, such as the Brooklyn Clubhouse, which encourages us to socialize, be a part of a community, and achieve our goals. We spoke about how our stability, resources, and support from S:US staff have motivated us to reach out to loved ones we were separated from for decades.
“I was in prison three times in my life, 20 years ago. When they used to have mail call, I never responded to it. I knew nobody wrote me because nobody knew where I was at. Imagine being in prison and no one knows you are there.
“I just reconnected with my brother after 20-something years […] One of the things that really shows my life has changed is when I fill out any kind of form that asks who they can contact in case of emergency. If you don’t have anybody to put there, it will bring tears to your eyes. Now I can put my brother’s name down.”
Supported Housing is a Lifeline
At several points, our conversation revealed how much of a difference simply having a home has made in our lives. When times get tough, our past selves may have resorted to unhealthy coping mechanisms without our own hard-earned wisdom and the resources available to us through S:US. Now, we have supportive staff to turn to. We have a quiet space to gather our thoughts, sleep soundly, contemplate solutions, and take on the day.
“What S:US has offered is stability. With a little longevity and getting a little older and a little wiser, instead of trying to escape the problem by doing all kinds of negative things that could hurt me, I go downstairs and talk to anybody who will listen […] I wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to do all of that without the support of the people in the building.”
As we enjoy these later stages of life, we know ourselves better than ever before. Overall, the simplicity and steadiness of our lives now makes us determined to make the most of the present, and optimistic about our futures. As one of us concluded, “I’m proud that I made it this far. It’s a blessing, and I’m proud of the stability in my life now.”