Report says elderly women spend fifth of income on medical expenses

Bush plan to offer prescription drug aid applauded by group

January 31, 2001|By COX NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Life is often grim for granny.

The typical woman over 65 lives alone, usually having outlived her husband. She has spent half her life caring for children and aging parents. She is almost twice as likely to be living in poverty than a man her age. She makes do on an income of about $15,000 a year, compared with an average of about $27,000 for elderly men.

She spends about a fifth of her income on medical costs - largely prescription drugs which are not covered under Medicare. She will live six years longer than the average man and is likely to need long-term care. Two-thirds of nursing home patients are women.

This stark statistical picture of female aging was presented yesterday in "The State of Older Women in America," a report by the Older Women's League, a national advocacy group.

"The face of aging is a woman's face," said Deborah Briceland-Betts, the executive director of OWL.

The report comes as President Bush has proposed a temporary step to help the elderly poor get prescription drugs before Congress tackles a broad Medicare overhaul. Called "Immediate Helping Hand," the plan would help states subsidize prescription drug costs for millions of low-income older Americans. The plan would expire in four years or sooner if comprehensive legislation is enacted.

At a news conference yesterday, OWL leaders said they were pleased that Bush has "come out early" with a prescription plan but warned that broader reforms of Medicare and of retirement plans are needed to help older women.

For instance, Medicare does not pay for long-term health care - again an issue where gender counts.

"The typical nursing home resident is a 75-year-old woman," said Jeanette Takamura, former assistant secretary of aging and OWL board member. "After spending an average of 17 years caring for our children and 18 years caring for our parents, the typical older woman in America will likely need care herself."

Because women typically outlive men and are thus more likely to develop chronic illnesses, women on Medicare spend 20 percent more on prescription drugs than their male counterparts, said Takamura.

The report said that retirement plans - both private pensions and Social Security - penalize women workers who are likely to have earned lower wages and built up less seniority than men. The average working woman has spent nearly 12 years staying home as a family caregiver - reducing what she paid into Social Security and what she vested in a pension, the report said.

The report urged reforms such as making pensions portable, which helps women who move between the work force and family, and indexing pensions to inflation, which would help women who begin retirement with less seniority and lower pensions.

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