Op-Ed: Seniors deserve better care post-pandemic

NYC:Councilmember Van Bramer endorses mayoral candidate Dianne Morales
City Councilman and Queens Borough President candidate Jimmy Van Bramer with his mom, Elizabeth, on May 13. (Photo by Gabriele Holtermann)

My 81 year old mother has become a superstar on the campaign trail. Voters and political candidates are always super excited that she is joining me at an event. I feel lucky to have her by my side. I’m also one of her caretakers.

There are over a million New York City residents over the age of 65— and every eight seconds, an American turns 65. There are more New Yorkers over 65 than under 13, and Queens has the second-largest older adult population of any county in New York state. While not every person over 65 needs a caretaker or senior services, many who do don’t have access to the support they need. According to the Center for an Urban Future, nearly 1-in-7 older New Yorkers are living in poverty, with higher rates for African American, Latino/Latina, Asian American, and immigrant older adults. One-in-ten older New Yorkers face hunger. And few families can afford the $80,000 a year for a nursing home.

This pandemic was especially risky for seniors. My mother is battling dementia and as her caretaker, I worried every moment about her contracting coronavirus. Nursing home residency and underlying comorbidities aside, people with Alzheimer’s and dementia were twice as likely to to catch COVID. My family faced incredible challenges because we not only had to regularly explain COVID to her, but also prevent ourselves from getting and passing the disease to her.

As the city moves out of the pandemic, we need to do a better job providing the necessary care-infrastructure for families. That starts with housing security, home care relief, and fully funded senior programs.

For the seniors who can stay at home and want to stay in their homes, we need to be providing rent relief. In 2016, less than 60,000 people were enrolled in Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) although it was estimated that there were over 120,000 potentially eligible SCRIE recipients. As Borough President, I will hire local organizers to go door-to-door to increase awareness and enrollment. I will also use the bully pulpit of the Queens Borough President’s office to push for an automatic enrollment for all seniors in publicly subsidized and rent stabilized housing, taking away the burden on seniors to seek out programs that will ultimately give them housing stability.

Families— like mine— provide eighty percent of all elder care, which is an estimated $32 billion in unpaid care. It’s why I fully support Assemblymember Ron Kim’s bill to provide a tax credit for qualified caregiving expenses (A06932). We need to lift the financial burden for those who choose to take care of their elderly relatives. Not everyone is lucky to split the responsibility between seven siblings like I am, but we can relieve some financial stress on a family.

Many seniors rely on public programs for their food security. City Meals on Wheels provided over two million meals at the height of the pandemic and Flushing’s La Jornada food pantry line was a quarter mile long. La Jornada had to hold a fundraiser for two electric rice cookers after their federal funding was cut. The number of Latinx residents who are over sixty five has doubled in Queens over the last decade and half of Asian American seniors are food insecure. As Borough President, I will ensure capital funding for our senior centers and food providers, especially those aimed at serving specific cultural and ethnic groups. In addition to meals, many seniors turn to public programs for other services, information, and community. More than thirty percent of older New Yorkers live alone. I will continue to provide funding and promote successful adult learning classes and group activities at community centers and the public libraries as I have since I was an organizer for the Queens Public Libraries.

Seniors were hit hard by this pandemic and last month, the Mayor and the Department for the Aging committed a five-year investment plan of $58 million for 25 Older Adults Centers in underserved communities as well as funding existing centers, services, and programming. It’s not enough; we need more targeted and sustained investments here in Queens.

Not many people are like my mother, who gets personal shout outs from union leaders at rallies and hangs out at parks where young activists line up for selfies. But every senior is special to someone and they all deserve the best.

Jimmy Van Bramer is a current City Council member running for Queens Borough President

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