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This Sun City senior is making ends meet. Many others on fixed incomes aren't so lucky

Coverage of aging is supported in part by AARP Arizona

Aging in America is expensive. According to a 2023 report from the National Council on Aging, millions of older Americans either have no assets, are struggling financially or have lost financial ground in the last few years. Here's the story of one Arizona senior who is figuring out how to get by.

Natalie Ball moved to Sun City in 2016. Ball’s retired now. But before the 75-year-old said goodbye to the daily grind, she was an X-ray technician, "and I was an X-ray tech in New York. And when I left New York in '08, I was making $40 an hour."

It was a pretty good income, she said. Before leaving New York, she sold her home — it was her nest egg — and paid cash for her condo here. Today, she’s living off her Social Security. 

"Now, I get $1,500 a month," she said. Ball has no pension and no 401(k).

"And not even a husband to help, not that they help any other way," she laughed.

Ball is like millions of older adults around the country who live on a fixed income. 

But she’s one of the luckier ones. Her home is paid off. And she’s in fairly good health — for now. The fact is, someone turning 65 today has an almost 70% chance of needing some kind of long-term care. And that’s an expense typically not covered by Medicare.

So, for the roughly 47 million older adult households in America that are already financially struggling, all it takes is a medical emergency or a dementia diagnosis to lose everything. 

Internet is 'a luxury expense'

But back to Ball. Today, she’s managing to make ends meet.

"I have the APS utility bill discount, I have Southwest Gas discount, I have an EPCOR water rebate that I get twice a month."

Ball recently took advantage of another discount. The FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program, also known as the internet.

"Because I haven't had internet since I was working when I retired. That's a luxury expense for a senior," she explained.

So is food for some older adults. And that’s where Julie Ash comes into this story. 

"So, if you want to apply for food stamps — SNAP — either you put yourself through an 81-page paper application. And that is just the start." — Julie Ash

Ash works at the Banner Olive Branch Senior Center in Sun City. Ash’s job is to help seniors like Ball access these programs, including SNAP. 

"So if you want to apply for food stamps — SNAP — either you put yourself through an 81-page paper application. And that is just the start," said Ash. Because once you submit it, you have to provide verification documents - for everything.

"And I think that's really the 'gotcha.' The process of applying for food stamps: If anybody says it’s easy, it’s not. … It's a very long interview process to get people through."

Ash said she’s had older adults come in and hand her the application because it’s just too difficult. So, she hops online, which requires internet, something not all older adults have, to help speed up the process.

"So, I probably in the last four years (have) done over 1,000 SNAP applications," Ash said.

Benefits are paltry compared to application

Ash said there is a simplified application program, which is an improvement. 

"But they haven't integrated that online. So, it's a seven- or eight-page document that then you must fax in or take it to the office," Ash said.

But perhaps the biggest deterrent for some seniors is not the stigma of SNAP or the 81 pages, though both are obstacles. Rather, it’s what you get.  

"Because the minimum is $23 a month," Ash told me.

"What? So all you get on your debit card is $23 bucks?" I say, surprised.

"Yes. Now, it can roll over month to month, so you can roll it. So, they're like why do I want to spend this time doing that?"

Ash reassuringly tells them is that it costs nothing to apply.

"And once you've got the EBT card, that is your ticket to having no-income verification required for APS discounts, Southwest Gas, any of those discount programs, you show that, and you are golden."

The hard truth though is that these programs are band-aids for gunshot wounds. Ball was the exception. She owns her home. Many of the older adults coming to Ash are on the cusp of homelessness … rent is going up, so are eviction rates, and there isn’t an adequate safety net to catch them all.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The story incorrectly stated how many older Americans are financially struggling. There are 47 million older adult households facing financial risks.

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KJZZ senior field correspondent Kathy Ritchie has 20 years of experience reporting and writing stories for national and local media outlets — nearly a decade of it has been spent in public media.