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Elder Index at Work: Defending Property Tax-Relief Programs for Older Homeowners in New Jersey

This blog post was written by Steven Syre of the Gerontology Institute at University of Massachusetts Boston, and is reprinted with their permission. 

multigeneration portraitThis article is one in a series of stories about how people across the country are using the Elder Index to understand the true cost of living for older adults and its economic implications. If you know someone who would like to receive information about these stories, send us a note at gerontologyinstitute@umb.edu.

Late this spring, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy faced a big problem that was all too familiar to other governors across America. The staggering economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic had created a state budget crisis, with unemployment soaring and new annual revenue projections falling billions of dollars short.

Murphy approached the problem by moving back the start of New Jersey’s next fiscal year from July to October and passing a three-month stop-gap budget to tide the state over. Included in the short-term budget: Cuts to two important property tax-relief programs that help older adults in New Jersey afford to remain in their homes.

This was no small detail. New Jersey homeowners pay the nation’s highest property tax rates, about twice the U.S. average. Nearly 580,000 homeowners benefitted from one of the  programs under the axe and 158,000 others took advantage of the other. Both programs primarily benefitted older homeowners and the combined impact of the cuts was expected to exceed $480 million.

Melissa Chalker, executive director of the New Jersey Foundation for Aging, understood all that. Along with AARP New Jersey and other advocates, Chalker immediately launched a campaign to convince the governor and state legislators to restore the critical programs. One of her key tools in advocacy calls and letters: The Elder Index.

“All of these communications would reference the Elder Index,” said Chalker. “It not only allowed us to tell policymakers that 54 percent of older adults in New Jersey have difficulty making ends meet, but a recent related report showed how effective one property tax-relief program in particular was in reducing the economic security gap facing older adults in the state.”

Melissa Chalker

Melissa Chalker

The index, developed and managed at the University of Massachusetts Boston, is a free online tool that provides realistic and detailed cost of living data for older adults living in every U.S. county. Combined with state-level income data, the index can also determine the percentage of older adults who have insufficient income to meet the cost of living in their states. UMass Boston’s Gerontology Institute published a report on state-by-state elder economic security last November.

The New Jersey Foundation for Aging and the Gerontology Institute have been working together for years to provide state and local leaders with clear data about the economic circumstances of their older citizens. The foundation helped promote legislation enacted in 2015 that requires an elder economic security report based on Elder Index data be maintained by state government as a public resource.

A companion report, prepared with Rutgers University and a consultant, analyzes racial and ethnic details in the data, as well other factors including the effectiveness of individual state programs in reducing elder economic insecurity.

“We want to constantly use the Elder Index to remind policymakers and people in state government that there is a need here with older adults,” said Chalker. “Whether it’s the SNAP nutrition program, housing or prescription drug prices, we’ve been able to send letters and testify at the statehouse on those issues stating the Elder Index data.

“We’ve also used it to arm our partners, whether they are funders, county office on aging staff or senior center staff to help them meet the needs of older adults in their communities,” she said.

But the foundation had always understood that housing expenses played an outsized role in New Jersey’s elder economic security problem. The online index can help anyone get sense of those dimensions in just a couple of clicks.

Here’s how: Enter New Jersey and national average queries for older couples in good health who own their own home without a mortgage. You’ll find total monthly expenses more than 20 percent higher in New Jersey, compared with the national average. Housing costs, almost double the national average in New Jersey, account for nearly all of the overall difference.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signs the state’s budget.

Data like that explain why Chalker and other advocates knew how important it was to save New Jersey’s property tax-relief programs. After a burst of calls, letters and op-ed columns, their efforts paid off last month. Murphy signed a new $32.7 billion budget for the remainder of the fiscal year, preserving both property tax relief programs for the future.

“I think the Elder Index was crucial in terms of the effort,” said Chalker. “You can anecdotally say how hard it is for seniors and tell some very compelling stories. But you’ve got to have metrics if you are making the case to policymakers and the elder economic insecurity reports provided what we needed.”

About the Gerontology Institute
The Gerontology Institute conducts research and policy analysis in the field of aging, and offers lifelong learning and pension protection services to older adults. The institute’s priorities include income security, long-term service and supports, healthy aging, age-friendly communities and social and demographic research on aging.

Grandparents Stepping Up to Assist Grandchildren with Virtual Education

 

Dr. Charisse Smith

As a young child growing up in New Jersey, I recall spending countless summers in the sandy woods of Wall Township with my maternal grandmother, Carolyn Holland.

On her screened-in porch, we spent hours playing such card games as Pitty Pat, War and Casino. This card shark, with less than an eighth-grade education, showed me no mercy, winning game after game! Through these card games, she fortuitously taught me how to quickly identify numbered groups (subitizing*) and strategy (critical thinking).

My paternal grandfather, Robert E. West of Neptune, instructed me in the art of applying the correct tip for great service at the local Perkins Pancake House. Maternal aunt Doris Sergeant of Asbury Park cultivated my love of reading and storytelling through her reading aloud. Her fluctuating animated voice magically fit each and every character of the stories she read.

As I reminisce about these special moments as a wide-eyed, inquisitive youngster, I now appreciate them as authentic learning experiences. I truly cannot recall specific reading or math lessons or feeling that these moments were “school,” but as an educator, I recognize that the benefits of simple card games and stories read to me set me on the path toward academic success.

Although I assist teachers in applying curriculum and best-teaching practices to classrooms, the simple games, conversations and nightly read-alouds with Carolyn, Robert and Doris were invaluable.

COVID-19 and virtual teaching/learning

According to the New Jersey Department of Education, there are approximately 2,734,950 students in New Jersey’s public and charter schools who are now participating in some form of virtual or remote learning due to the COVID-19 crisis. Many New Jersey schools pivoted from photocopied worksheets and packets to working exclusively online with students in virtual classrooms.

In a matter of a few weeks, New Jersey school districts found themselves quickly gathering their troops of learning experts, teachers and educational technology departments to provide quality learning opportunities for all of their students. Families also found themselves banding together to navigate through digital learning platforms like Zoom, Google Classroom, Google Meets, Microsoft Teams, Class Dojo, Canvas and Blackboard.

Older Americans are teaching/learning, too

Older Americans also fearlessly accepted the call to join the ranks of the virtual homeschooling faculty. Because many parents continue to work as essential workers, older adult family members have been designated as the at-home schoolteacher. These older family members are ensuring that children are logging on, participating and completing school assignments.

One example is a 68-year-old grandmother in Mercer County’s Hamilton Township, Mrs. Jones. She joined the ranks of homeschoolers this March. Mrs. Jones is not only caring for her ill husband, but by working in online learning platforms to assist her kindergarten-aged grandson, has expanded her technological skill set.

Through perseverance and a little bit of coaching, Mrs. Jones is now more comfortable helping her grandson with the daily requirements of cyber-learning such as logging on to online class meetings; monitoring reading, writing, and math assignments in Google Classroom; accessing books online; following up with emails, and communicating with teachers via the Class Dojo app.

Familiarizing oneself with multiple learning platforms can be overwhelming even for the most tech-savvy person. But older Americans, like Mrs. Jones, are courageously balancing the duties of being a caregiver for an ailing spouse, running a household and homeschooling an active kindergartener.

I admire Mrs. Jones for her tenacity and grit during this challenging time. She admits that working with technology is frustrating, and she felt like giving up, but I encouraged her to take care of herself and to do her best. Her best is amazing!

Other ways older adults can share knowledge/expertise

I encourage all older adults who are caring for and/or homeschooling young family members to share their knowledge and expertise by:

  • Having conversations
  • Counting and grouping the number of tiles on the floor
  • Finding a pattern in the carpet
    • *I mentioned subitizing before. Subitizing is a hot topic in math education circles. It means “instantly seeing how many.” Math educators have discovered that the ability to see numbers in patterns is the foundation of strong number sense. Visit https://mylearningspringboard.com/subitizing/
  • Following a recipe using measuring spoons and cups
  • Writing a song together and recording Tik-Tok videos of you singing
  • Coloring in coloring books
  • Listening to books on tape or online together
    • This website features videos of actors reading children’s books, alongside creatively produced illustrations. Activity guides are available for each book. https://www.storylineonline.net/
  • Teaching them how to play a card game

Other resources to use

Older adults have much to give and young people, much to receive! I would dare to guess that there are many Mrs. Joneses here in New Jersey. Are you one? You deserve our gratitude, respect and support.

As a New Jersey educator, I would like to thank all of the caring and brave older Americans in our state who are committed to sharing their knowledge, wisdom, love and expertise to help our students continue to grow and learn!

Dr. Smith is the featured guest on Episode 106 of Aging Insights, with host Melissa Chalker — watch “Learning Together” now!

Dr. Charisse Smith of Trenton earned a Ph.D. in Education with a specialization in Professional Studies. She serves on the boards of New Jersey Foundation for Aging and Notre Dame High School, is an Instructional Coach with the Hamilton Township Public Schools, President of ETE-Excellence Through Education of Hamilton Township and is the owner of Sankofa Educational Consulting, LLC.  Dr. Smith proudly notes that she has been married for 23 years and has two beautiful children!

 

How to Age Well: Planning Your Path, Part 3: Money and Retirement

By Mason Crane-Bolton

Are you ready for your financial future? | Photo by Mathieu Turle via unsplash.com

 

There is no way to get aging “right”…

 

…But it does help to plan.

Something is happening each and every day across New Jersey. Across the United States. Across the entirety of the planet.

We are all getting older.

Like it or not, each and every one of us is on a journey of aging. From the moment we are born until the moment we die, we are aging.

We tend to think of aging as being something saved for an arbitrary age, like 50, 60, 65,…etc. We could list off the ages at which society (for one reason or another) has decided we’ve hit a certain benchmark in aging. Whether it’s Social Security benefits, Medicare enrollment, retirement, “senior citizen” discounts, or a screening your doctor now wants you to undergo, we tend to have these changes attached to specific ages or with “being of a certain age.” We think of them as being times in our life when a monumental change has occurred, a mark of “aging.”

But the truth is, regardless of what arbitrary number might be assigned to program enrollments or coupons, we don’t age in random, sudden leaps. We age constantly and gradually. While this might make it tempting to wait to plan for your later years, you should plan now. No one wants to be caught unawares by changes as you age or a sudden health crisis, so it makes sense to plan for your later years as early as possible. Think of planning now as training for becoming an older adult.

What if you already consider yourself an older adult? That’s not to say this blog doesn’t apply to you too! It absolutely does—no matter where you are or where you consider yourself to be in your path of aging, it makes sense to plan now for the road ahead, whether that road is two days or twenty years from now!

Having plans in place will mitigate much stress and bad decision-making in emergency situations. Much heartache and avoidable stressed is caused by being forced to make difficult decisions in the heat of the moment; time spent worrying about what the best decision is and then wondering if the right decision is the one you made.

What are some priorities to focus on? We’re so glad you asked. In this three-part series we’ll cover different aspects of how-to age well as we lead up to our 21st Annual Conference. If you’d like to register for the conference but haven’t yet, go to www.njfoundationforaging.org for more information.

This week, in the final chapter of our three-part series, we’ll cover: money and retirement.

 

Money

Do you have money saved for the future? Will it be enough for yourself and any care you might need? Have you enrolled or will you enroll in supplemental programs? Do you know your eligibility? Have you already retired? Are you about to retire? Do you have money saved up for retirement? Will money be coming in during your retirement or will it just be going out?

Suffice it to say there are many questions surrounding money throughout the course of our lives, particularly as we become older, possibly retire, and consider our long-term care needs. If you haven’t already, read Barbara O’Neill’s article on flipping financial switches later in life (Flipping a Switch: For Happiness and Financial Security in Later Life, pages 6-7) in the latest issue of Renaissance for some great insight into what financial changes you can anticipate facing as you age.

The sheer number of questions can be daunting, let alone the stress financial decisions and discussions can instill in people. But just having a plan for your financial future can save you from a load of future stressors and difficulties. If you’re facing a loss of income it may be necessary or helpful to consider what options you have: could you work a part-time job or are you eligible for Social Security or disability benefits? Would you be interested or able to live with a roommate or relative?

 

A note about programmatic assistance

As part of your financial discussions, investigate eligibility requirements for assistance programs—there are many different types of assistance programs across the state for services ranging from utilities, to property taxes, food and fresh produce, medication, and more! Learn more about each program and see which ones may best work for your own situation. You can learn more and apply to multiple assistance programs (though not all assistance programs) through the state’s new, simplified application NJSave.

Some programs include, but are not limited to, Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Aged and Disabled (PADD), the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LiHEAP), and NJ SHARES. PADD is a prescription drug assistance program that can help you pay for your medications and LiHEAP and NJ SHARES are utility assistance programs that make it easier for older adults and others to pay their utilities throughout the year and may offer weatherization tips or tools. Whether you are eligible for one or all of these programs, each can make a significant difference and positive impact in your life. You may be eligible and not know it, so make sure to look into each of these programs.

It’s important to know that some of these programs, particularly the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), face chronic underenrollment—in NJ alone, only 48% of eligible older adults are receiving benefits, meaning that 52% of eligible older adults are facing additional food insecurity and financial strain and may not realize they qualify for this benefit. Learning more about SNAP and other assistance programs could help you today or in the future, depending on your eligibility status. Furthermore, signing up for these programs will help you save money and ensure you have access to basic necessities and a higher quality of life. Although you cannot apply to SNAP through NJSave, you can apply only through the NJ SNAP website.

Another way to help secure greater benefits later in life is to put off taking your Social Security benefits until you’re 70, if possible. Waiting until age 70 will maximize your benefits payout. If you plan on using Social Security benefits to supplement your income in a meaningful way you’ll want to have as much of your money as possible coming to you in each benefit check or deposit.

 

Retirement

Does the thought of retiring make you sweat or fill you with joy? What will you do with your newfound time? Will you have too much, too little, or none at all? How can you make this new phase of your life work best for you?

Retirement can be a joy for some and a great sorrow for others. Whether you’re looking forward to retirement or dreading it, it’s important to know what you’re going to do with this next phase of your life. Many people may choose not to retire or may not be able to for financial reasons, and in this case it’s equally important to choose how to spend this time when many friends may be retiring or health changes may make it necessary for you to cut back on hours spent working.

For those who are retiring, having a plan for your retirement can make the difference between remaining healthy and happy and declining physically and mentally. For many of us, even those who don’t love their jobs, having a regular work schedule can fill us with a sense of purpose or, at least, give us a predictable schedule and a way to pass the time. A newfound freedom in retirement may allow you to pursue a hobby or travel, spend time with friends and family, or relax in ways you didn’t think were possible. If this sounds good to you, try planning out at least a few days a week with activities that are meaningful to you and keep you engaged; this could be going out and socializing with friends, reading books, engaging in a craft or sport, or volunteering—anything that gives you pleasure and a sense of purpose.

If the above sounds boring and pointless to you, or at least unfulfilling and unwanted, consider working part-time as part of your retirement or semi-retirement. For many people fulltime retirement may not be enjoyable—it may seem dull, and could lead to depression, physical and mental decline. A volunteer role (fulltime or part-time) may work for some, but not for others. The work could be a passion of yours that’s been on the backburner, or could be something like office work, cashiering, or other positions that work for you and your schedule. Often it’s the set schedule of work that’s vital to keeping people happy and engaged more than the work itself. Moreover, people who have the luxury to choose to work past retirement instead of working out of necessity can enjoy the freedom of knowing they can leave their job if and when they choose to and can have greater flexibility in schedule and line of work.

However you decide to spend your later years, come up with a preliminary plan and a backup plan. Although your plans may change over the years, it will be helpful to have an initial plan in place now for how you’d like to spend your time and what activities will be meaningful to you in the future.

 

 

There is no one solution to deciding how you will cope with money, retirement, and other financial changes. Just as your life changes, so many the appropriate solution for you—having a plan, or even considering your current or future needs, is the first step to aging well.

Thank you for reading our three-part series on how to age well and how to plan for aging! We hope you learned something new, connected with a resource, tried one of our tips, or had thought-provoking discussions with loved ones. If you missed part one or part two in this series, you can read them here ( Part 1: Mobility and Transportation ) and here ( Part 2: Home, Health, and “After I’m Gone…” ?). As this series in our blog winds to a close the excitement for our June 4th, 2019, annual conference is just beginning! If you’d like to attend our 21st Annual Conference, “The ‘How-To’s’ for Aging Well,” go to njfoundationforaging.org for more information and to register! We hope to see you there on June 4th!

 

If you have feedback or would like to be part of the conversation, leave us a comment below or email us as office@njfoundationforaging.org.

Come back for our next blog! New posts are published on the first and third Thursdays of each month.


Mason Crane-Bolton is Communications Manager for the New Jersey Foundation for Aging. His writing has appeared in EpiphanyUU WorldTo Wake/To Rise, and others. 

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