By Wally Kennedy
NOEL, Mo. — Cleo Crosby was born in Joplin in 1934 near the height of the Great Depression.
She has lived in the Noel area since 1966 with her husband, Oman. They raised a family together, including one child on income from Social Security alone.
The Crosbys know how to make ends meet, but it has not been easy to be a senior citizen in McDonald County.
The Missouri Senior Report 2008 confirms that. Nearly one in five senior citizens in McDonald County (17.9 percent) lives below the poverty line, nearly double the state average of 9.3 percent.
“You have to nip and tuck, and sometimes you rob Peter to pay Paul,” Cleo said.
She works as a volunteer at the local senior center in Noel, and helps others who are in worse financial shape than she and her husband. Seniors, she said, often must choose between food and medication. She knows many seniors who live in substandard housing.
In early November, the Crosbys moved from their home five miles from Noel to government housing in Noel. The move changed their lives for the better.
“Our house was literally falling down around us. We had no finances and no family to do the work if we could have afforded the material,” she said. “We’re better off now.
“We eat better than we used to. It was hard to come up with the food sometimes. We eat lunch at the senior center now,” she said.
At one point when her husband was ill, she nearly gave up.
“Sometimes you would think you just have to leave it in God’s hands,” she said.
The well-being of seniors throughout Missouri is documented in the Missouri Senior Report, an annual publication of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. The report, now in its third year, provides a county-by-county comparison of how seniors are faring economically, socially and physically.
When the first report was released, it was hailed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as nationally innovative, a way to ensure that key information on seniors was available to those who need it for planning programs and tracking trends.
The 2008 report reflects what happened to seniors in 2007. The report in 2009 will reflect the economic meltdown that took place in late 2008. Hines said it is likely the report that is released in 2010 will provide the best indicator of how the economic crisis of 2008 has hurt seniors in Missouri.
“This is why the senior report is so important because it provides comparative data from year to year,” she said. “People ask us why we do an annual report. That’s the only way you are going to see trends.”
Some of the information in the report:
n There are nearly 28,000 seniors in Barton, Jasper, Newton and McDonald counties.
n The number of seniors with a driver’s license in Jasper County went from 80.6 percent to 83.1 percent from 2001 to 2007; from 80 to 89 percent in Newton County; and from 75.9 to 88.8 percent in McDonald County. In Barton County, it went from 83.3 to 88.1 percent.
n More than three-quarters of seniors in those four counties live in their own homes.
n The percentage of seniors who are overweight ranges from 35.1 percent in McDonald County to 47.1 percent in Barton County.
The report, compiled by the University of Missouri Office of Social and Economic Data Analysis, shows improvement for seniors statewide on two economic issues: housing affordability and poverty. Poverty is measured by the percentage of personal income that eligible seniors and people with disabilities receive from Supplemental Security Income.
When seniors have to spend more than 30 percent of their monthly income on housing-related costs, it puts a financial burden on them. The percentage of Missouri seniors who faced this burden declined slightly in 2007 to 28.5 percent, compared with 28.9 percent in 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
“It depends what part of the state you are in. We have a lot of geographic and cultural diversity in Missouri. Seniors in the southern part of Missouri and in the Bootheel, and in the farm areas in the northern part of Missouri are struggling. But the seniors around Branson are thriving,” said Laurie Hines, aging coordinator for the Department of Health and Senior Services.
According to the report, the poverty rate among seniors in Jasper County dropped from 10.3 percent in 2000 to 7.6 percent in 2007. The rate in Newton County for the same period dropped from 9.5 percent to 7.4 percent. In Barton County, it went from 16.8 to 16.4 percent.
Though the poverty rate among seniors in some counties has dropped, that does not mean that seniors are having an easy go of it.
Karen Shoemaker, who heads the Joplin Senior Center, said, “I know that groceries being higher has affected our seniors. When gas went up, some seniors couldn’t come as often as they usually did to the center for lunch. Now that gas prices have come down, they are coming back more often.
“I think our seniors are being more careful with their money.”
Louene Gardner, head of the senior center at Noel, said: “A lot of it depends on the medication they have to buy. The other issue they are facing is the rising cost of food. That has put a strain on them.
“But despite the fact that things are not going well for them, they’re still pretty upbeat. They don’t complain a whole lot. They’re more concerned about others than themselves.”
Today seniors comprise 13.4 percent of Missouri’s population; by 2025, that number will rise to 19 percent. Increases in life expectancy and aging baby boomers are at the root of the surge, which will affect Missouri communities in different ways, varying greatly among cities, suburbs and rural communities.
The Missouri Senior Report 2008 is available online at www.missouriseniorreport.org.
By Wally Kennedy