No guarantee you’ll have a place to live when you retire

By Vivian Sahner
January 29, 2024

Many older workers in the U.S. confront the harsh reality that working your entire adult life doesn’t guarantee you will have a roof over your head if you retire.

Millions of older adults who depend on meager Social Security benefits for nearly all their income find it increasingly difficult to cover the soaring costs for rent or mortgages, food and other necessities. The minute your car breaks down or you or a family member faces unexpected medical expenses, the road to homelessness can loom.

According to the latest government figures — widely accepted as an undercount — the percentage of people who have nowhere to live surged in the U.S. last year by 12%, the highest increase ever recorded. And more than one-quarter, the fastest growing segment of those homeless, are over 54 years old.

Affordable housing for older adults is increasingly scarce. Volunteers of America of Florida told the Wall Street Journal that hundreds there are on waiting lists. “The reason we don’t have more is because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development asked us to stop taking applications,” said Volunteers of America officer Janet Stringfellow.

Florida resident Judy Schroeder told the Journal she lost an apartment after her landlord jacked up the rent and she lost a part-time job. She couch surfed with friends for months, then began eyeing her 2004 Pontiac Grand Am as a last-resort shelter. “I never thought, at 71 years old, I’d be in this position,” she said.

Near Tampa, 2,600 seniors are on waiting lists for long-term-care housing covered by Medicaid. The median price for a room in a private nursing home in Florida was $115,000 a year in 2021.

But even if you can afford private care it doesn’t mean you’ll get what you pay for. At Lavender Farms, an upscale assisted-living facility outside Boulder, Colorado, that advertises “24/7 on-site care,” 97-year-old resident Mary Jo Staub died in 2022 after banging repeatedly on the doors when she was locked out in subfreezing temperatures. Staub’s family was paying an extra $1,500 per month for a higher level of care on top of the standard charges of $6,800 per month.

Assisted-living facilities — where more than a million older adults now live — are a $34 billion profit-producing business. As the bosses move to squeeze out even more profits, nurses aides make an average of $15 an hour nationally and each one can be expected to be responsible for two dozen residents. No matter how hard they work, it’s inevitable that some medications are missed, falls go unnoticed and bedsores untreated. According to the Washington Post, nearly 100 residents over the last five years have died after wandering away or being left unattended outside.

“When you see how much work you do at the end of the day and you get paid that amount? It’s insane,” Culix Wibonele, a certified nursing assistant who earns $16 an hour at an assisted-living facility in Atlanta, told the Journal.

Lavender Farms is owned by Welltower, a $40 billion investment firm and the biggest owner of senior homes in the country. More than $1 billion in dividends is distributed to shareholders annually and the pay package for its CEO was $38 million last year.

After security cameras recorded Staub’s struggles and death, Lavender Farms had them permanently removed.

The number of older adults who need assisted living will soar in the decades ahead as the large post-World War II baby-boom generation ages. But the capitalist rulers have no plan for this.

For the bosses, if you can no longer work and generate profit for them, your life is over. That became harrowingly obvious during the pandemic, as hundreds of thousands of older adults died unnecessarily, put on the bottom of the list for respirators and barred from visits by family and friends.

Over the past few years there have been a growing number of union-led fights by nurses and aides for lower patient ratios and higher wages, and some gains have been won. Last year the United Auto Workers fought to get the Big Three auto companies to restore paid health care and pensions for retirees that earlier generations of autoworkers won, but the bosses refused.

These union fights are crucial to expand employer and government responsibility to provide for workers’ retirement. They deserve support by all working people.

But it’s only when the working class is organized in its millions to overturn the capitalist system that puts profits above all else, that we can reorganize society to meet human needs.