Hands reaching up.

The Psychological Impact of Poverty on Seniors

by Kathryn Larlee, J.D., Hotline Attorney

“Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?” The Beatles, in their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in 1967, asked this question, half in jest.

However, this question has significance for many adults staring down the road at their later years of life. Unlike the Beatles’ song which envisions a later life with grandchildren on their knees and maybe renting a lovely little cottage for holidays, a growing percentage of older adults are facing isolation, loneliness, and poverty. According to the 2016 report by America’s Health Rankings, the national average is just below 10% and Michigan is right around 8%. This translates into over 25 million Americans over age 60 who are living at or below poverty.

There are numerous articles and statistics about the impact of poverty on a person’s ability to access medical care, food, and other resources. But, what is the internal impact on individuals who are facing health issues, aging, and a significant loss of income?

Poverty becomes a “physical and psychological condition,” not just an economic one. When I was growing up I wondered why my father stocked canned goods in the cellar. He was born one year after the Great Depression, and was probably affected by it on many levels, so that even when he had a measure of economic security, he continued to stock up on food, “just in case.”

When a person is living with limited resources, studies show that the person will have higher levels of stress hormones, isolation, physical complaints, and thought problems. This leads to more problems with reaching out for help, with decision making, and with logical thinking. Even when a person reaches out for help, there are problems with communication because an individual under severe and sustained stress is not going to communicate in the same way as a person who is not under stress. Poverty can reduce a person’s world to survival, to budgeting, hunger, shame, and fear.

Dr. Abraham Maslow developed his theory of the Hierarchy of Needs which describes the basic human needs that must be met in order for a person to seek out higher goals.  Maslow was motivated by his own experience with poverty to study the psychology of poverty and the effects of sustained stress on individuals. Maslow ultimately came to the conclusion that a strong emotional support system could greatly make up for unmet needs of survival and safety, but without any support there is little hope for any higher needs to be met (Maslow, 1971).

So, the upshot here is that poverty is more than an economic condition, and that it can lead to some severe psychological and physical problems. For many seniors, there are the additional stressors of being on a fixed income, more health issues, and less options for increasing resources. The good news is that with strong emotional support, many of these stresses can be reduced so that people can enjoy some measure of comfort in their “golden years.”

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