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Roybal Institute studies fiscal challenges of the elderly

William Vega led research that examined the economic well-being of older Latinos and African-Americans.
William Vega, executive director of the Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging at the USC School of Social Work

A new report from the USC Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging at the USC School of Social Work offers a glimpse into the lives of aging Latinos and African-Americans living in East and South Los Angeles and the challenges they face amid the ongoing economic crisis.

“The economic problems that have beset California and the United States have imposed a special hardship on low-income aging people in the Los Angeles areas surveyed in our report,” said Provost Professor William Vega, executive director of the USC Roybal Institute.

A research team led by Vega and Karen Lincoln, associate professor at the School of Social Work and associate director of the Roybal Institute, conducted a community survey to determine the current health status and living conditions of older Latinos and African-Americans in select low-income and middle-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles County. The most recent U.S. census data from 2005 to 2009 suggested to researchers that more minority seniors in areas such as Crenshaw, Inglewood and Boyle Heights were facing greater financial hardship since the 2000 census.

Results from the survey, outlined in “Current Conditions Among Older Latinos and African-Americans in Low- and Middle-Income Los Angeles Neighborhoods,” seemed to support that assumption. More than half of the respondents reported a household income below $15,000 per year, and 28 percent of respondents said they were unable to pay bills that they were able to pay before the country’s economic situation worsened.

“Our survey provides a strong indication that many households have found it necessary to change their living conditions and that it has been a struggle to manage routine expenses,” Vega said.

Though the survey’s scale was relatively small — the research team interviewed only 253 older Latinos and African-Americans ranging in age from 60 to 100 — it provided one of the most up-to-date snapshots of the existing economic situation in specific neighborhoods in Los Angeles.

The findings also highlighted concerns about the predicted increase in local health disparities with the forecasted growth in the population of older racial and ethnic minority residents in Los Angeles in the coming decades. A survey conducted in the years just before the economic downturn revealed that there were significant racial and ethnic differences in terms of health needs among Los Angeles County elders — with non-Latino white elders reporting the least need and elders of color reporting the most need.

“Our population is rapidly aging, and the trend is occurring most rapidly among non-white Americans,” Vega said.

Responses to the institute’s survey further revealed that aging Latino and African-American populations face many health challenges connected to their financial challenges.

According to the report, socio-economic status definitely impacts health; half of those who reported income less than $15,000 a year had more than five lifetime illnesses.

One of the more striking statistical findings was that 63 percent of older African-Americans and 51 percent of older Latinos surveyed lived alone. Only 22 percent of seniors statewide reported living alone in the California Health Interview Survey (CHIS).

Studies have shown that a lack of social support and meaningful social relationships is related to poor health and overall well-being.

“Social isolation is a serious problem for older adults because it is related to a host of negative health outcomes, including cardiovascular disease, all-cause mortality and morbidity,” Lincoln said. “The risk for depression and suicide is also much higher for older adults who are isolated compared with those who are married or live with others.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the prevalence of individuals who screened positive for serious psychological distress was much greater among the institute’s survey participants than among participants in the CHIS.

Still, researchers were encouraged by the fact that more than half of those who lived alone indicated they had contact with family or relatives nearly every day.

Signs of hopeful progress, however, remain tempered by the very real possibility of deeper funding cuts to services supporting older adults by federal, state and local governments looking to balance their ledgers amid the ongoing economic crisis.

“Given the significant cuts to funding for services and programs that provide opportunities for social interaction for older adults, social isolation will be a serious public health concern in the very near future unless we find ways to provide supportive services to those who are aging in place and living alone,” Lincoln said.

Though the statistical results from the survey are not intended to be representative of the complex demographics of East and South Los Angeles, the USC Roybal Institute hopes the report will offer insights and provide guidance to local policymakers, leaders of service organizations, practitioners and elected officials.

“We have been engaged in disseminating our report to local agencies and community stakeholders to provide information that may prove useful for them in advocacy and services planning,” Vega said.

The USC Roybal Institute is dedicated to translational research and training that promotes and sustains optimal physical, mental and social functioning of older persons from low-income and multiethnic backgrounds so they may age successfully in their communities.

The survey was funded by the Southern California Clinical and Translational Science Institute and the School of Social Work’s Frances G. and Ernest P. Larson Endowed Fund for Innovative Research.

Read the full report. A Spanish version of the report is also available.

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Roybal Institute studies fiscal challenges of the elderly

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