Rejecting the senior discount

By David Lee and Clare Ling

A faint scent of citrus wafts through Hanul Family Alliance in Albany Park, where orange slices are being passed around to awaiting seniors who have finished their Miyeokguk–a traditional Korean seaweed soup. In one corner, a huddle of older men flip through Korean newspapers and try to fend off the heat with small handheld fans. Others, sitting on plastic folding chairs with canes in arm’s reach, chat in their native tongue as they wait for their daily English lesson to begin.

Senior-DiscountFounded in 1987, Hanul, a Korean American senior center, is just one of the many organizations in Illinois that provides services to older adults with limited English proficiency. The daily lunches and English classes are augmented by paperwork assistance, cultural programming, and homecare nursing.

However, annual budget cuts have been an unfortunate but recurring reality for these social services. Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed 2016 budget, the focal point of an impasse lasting since July 1, cuts deeper than most as he tries to reduce a state deficit standing at $6.2 billion.

In effect, Rauner is proposing to cut the Illinois Department on Aging’s Community Care Program by more than $140 million–an almost 19 percent decrease in funding from the previous year. The program is designed to help seniors remain in their homes through community-based services, like those offered through Hanul. It currently serves more than 104,000 older adults.

“We have always been aware of having these cuts,” said Sima Quraishi, the Executive Director of the Muslim Women Resource Center. “But they were always at 15 to 20 percent, [and] not totally eliminating the programs.”

The budget is still being debated between the governor and legislators, with discussions lasting long past the original May 31 deadline. The impasse has the biggest impact on people who rely on state services as programs like Medicare, rehab, child care and senior meal programs get cut off from funding. Gov. Rauner has issued an executive action that enforced new limits on the Community Care Program.

First, the number of seniors eligible to receive assistance from the Community Care Program–determined by level of disability and daily living needs–decreased. In effect, 24,000 seniors will be cut from the program, according to estimated figures prepared by the Illinois Council of Case Coordination Units.

The governor’s executive action also implemented a new income cap for recipients of the program, set at $17,500. This cap will cut more than 21,000 seniors, decreasing the total amount of Community Care Program recipients by 38 percent and reducing the amount of service a member can receive by an average of 1.2 hours a week.

“The hours that are being cut are important, because every hour, every second, the worker does something that is really helpful,” Quraishi said. “And the seniors make their schedules for the workers. [The workers] go to the doctor, prepare food, clean their room–these are crucial things they really need to do.”

In the long run, however, these cuts might not save the state much money–if any at all–according to senior care provider AgeOptions and the Institute for Illinois’ Fiscal Sustainability, an initiative of the Civic Federation.

Many clients who might become ineligible for the Community Care Program could end up in nursing homes, advocates for seniors say, and the state will have to foot the bill. It costs Illinois approximately $2,400 a month to care for a nursing home patient as compared to the $800 a month through the Community Care Program, according to AARP Illinois.

“People, if they are not able to sustain themselves, will rapidly lose functions and find themselves in a nursing home,” said Jonathan Lavin, the CEO of AgeOptions. “We’re basically playing defense on everything [in order] to have people understand we need revenue through the budget and we need to have people maintain independence for as long as possible.”

At Metropolitan Asian Family Services, a senior center in Rogers Park that specializes in providing care for older Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Eastern European adults, some seniors are frightened by the proposed budget’s threatening implications.

“This center, to speak very frankly, is helping us to spend away our time,” said Mohammed Nazeer Ahmed, a senior who has been coming to Metropolitan Asian Family Services for three years. “We come over here … meeting friends, doing some work, doing exercises, doing prayers … otherwise our mind would become rotten at home. If we sit idle at this age, we become sick.”

Some, however, see the budget cuts as an unfortunate but necessary reality. Other social services, such as homeless prevention programs, are also in dire need of funding, according to Michael Lucci, the director of jobs and growth campaign for the Illinois Policy Institute. Cuts to one section can free up funds for another.

Lucci also noted the Democrats’ current spending plan, which calls for a property tax hike, isn’t a sufficient option considering the state’s long history of raising taxes without being able to balance the budget.

“Illinois has increased tax revenues more than any other state,” Lucci said. “What the governor is saying through this budget is that we can’t just keep running a ridiculous budget and going back for more and more. He’s representing the taxpayers for the first time in a really long time.”

Back inside Hanul, Kwang Lee Kim folds up the Korean newspaper she just finished reading. Kim arrived at Hanul only three weeks ago after moving from New York to be closer to her younger daughter.

“I want to live near Korean senior center,” Kim said. “Because Koreans are friends. We are same people, same food. The other [senior centers are] like a medical center, different.”

The proposed budget poses particular drawbacks to ethnic senior centers like Metropolitan Asian Family Services and Hanul, which receives 80 to 85 percent of its funding from the state government and relies heavily on the Community Care Program to provide specialized care for their limited English speaking seniors.

“Their ability to learn the new culture and language is already very much gone,” said Irene Sohn, the deputy executive director of Hanul. “That’s why it’s very critical for ethnic organizations to exist … Our agency provides this unique, safe environment for them to socialize with their peers, to share information and also receive information and resources that otherwise they wouldn’t have access to.”

The demand for affordable senior centers that provide services to limited English speakers is strong in Chicago, where 13 percent of the senior population has limited English ability and is twice as likely as other seniors to live in poverty, according to a report by the Coalition of Limited English Speaking Elderly.

The lack of English language skills also hinders some clients’ abilities to speak out against the budget cuts. Many seniors don’t know that they can write or speak to someone in the state legislature in order to voice their concerns, said Nazneen Begum, the media coordinator for Metropolitan Asian Family Services.

“Speaking out is really a challenge to [the seniors] but they have to say, ‘we have to come out,’” Begum said. “We cannot shut up and we cannot keep quiet because if we shut up and if we keep quiet then it is affecting us.”

Hanul’s leadership has also been actively fighting the cuts, joining advocacy groups such as the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and participating in rallies and lobbying efforts in Springfield, Sohn said.

David Lee is the Community Journalism Intern at Advancing Justice | Chicago. Clare Ling is a student at Northwestern University. Both are students in the Medill School of Journalism.