TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: For seniors like 76-year-old Mary Exon, the downturn in the economy has been particularly tough. Living on a fixed income, Mary and her husband, Bob Exon, were struggling to pay for the rising costs of utilities, fuel and food.
MARY EXON, Senior Citizen: Just trying to have enough money to pay the monthly bills was a problem.
TOM BEARDEN: Then last year, Bob Exon was diagnosed with vascular dementia. Even though the Exon’s health insurance covered most of the medical bills, the illness brought new expenses, and quickly the couple found themselves in a financial freefall.
MARY EXON: All that adds up, doctor visits and prescriptions. And so it’s difficult when you’re on a fixed income to be able to pay everything.
TOM BEARDEN: Mary and her husband, who died last month, took out eight new credit cards and ended up $35,000 in debt before finally filing for bankruptcy last fall.
MARY EXON: The credit cards, they would say so much cash available, and so I was using that just to help pay monthly bills. And then you can’t pay them, and it snowballs. And you just — there’s no way you can keep up with it, so I knew I had to do something.
Acquiring debt to survive
TOM BEARDEN: The Exons' troubles are not unique. According to a report released by the AARP, bankruptcy filings among people age 75 to 84 have skyrocketed by 433 percent between 1991 to 2007.
A recent AARP telephone survey found that 59 percent of people 65 and older say they are currently having trouble paying for fuel, food, and medicine; 18 percent report skipping meals; and 10 percent said they've cut back on their medications.
Jose Vasquez is a lawyer for Colorado Legal Services and helps seniors who are in financial distress.
JOSE VASQUEZ, Colorado Legal Services: These are not clients who used the credit cards to purchase luxury items or trips; these are clients who are using these credit cards to survive.
TOM BEARDEN: Vasquez says even the slightest increases in living expenses have forced seniors to re-enter the workforce to pay their bills.
JOSE VASQUEZ: They're going out, you know, doing oftentimes very menial labor jobs. They're cleaning houses; they're doing daycare, or pet-sitting, or working in retail for not very much money. And it's definitely surprising to see that, but it's not uncommon.
Budget cuts impact community help
TOM BEARDEN: The pocketbook pressures facing some seniors come at a time when community charities for the elderly are feeling a financial pinch themselves. Jim White is the director of Community Affairs for Volunteers of America in Denver.
JIM WHITE, Volunteers of America: What we're looking at here at Volunteers of America, if you take the increased demand, food costs going up anywhere from 6 percent to 15 percent, depending on the item, and then our fuel going up, you know, we could look at maybe a $250,000 net impact this year on this particular program.
TOM BEARDEN: White says demand for their free meal program has gone up 15 percent in the last six months alone.
JIM WHITE: So all of a sudden, people are saying, "Well, here's a meal that I don't have to buy."
TOM BEARDEN: Meanwhile, recruiting new drivers for the Meals on Wheels program, which relies on volunteers to drive their own cars and pay for their own gas, has stalled. As a result, 2,000 Meals on Wheels programs across the country have had to put people on waitlists. Denver Meals on Wheels currently has 200 people on their list.
JIM WHITE: To tell a 92-year-old widow that we'll get to her as soon as we can for food in this country just isn't right.
TOM BEARDEN: Volunteer drivers Kip and Rhonda Hardcastle have been delivering meals for eight years and feel committed to the program.
RHONDA HARDCASTLE, Volunteer: We take a few less trips for fun across town so that we spend a little less on gas for that. And then we have it for this.
JIM WHITE: If they're already hooked into the program, if they were hooked in, and they're delivering, and they've got their seniors, you know, their special friends, when gas was $3 a gallon, well, they're not going to leave with gas at $6 a gallon.
But recruiting new volunteers and trying to expand and take care of those extra 200 people is very, very hard right now.
TOM BEARDEN: Other adult transportation services, like those that bring seniors to the doctors or to the supermarket, have had to cut back, as well.
James Grant says he would have trouble paying for the hot meal he gets every day from Meals on Wheels.
MEALS ON WHEELS RECIPIENT: Food costs is just outrageous now.
TOM BEARDEN: Senior advocates worry that paying bills will likely get harder for the elderly on a fixed income as home heating costs this winter are expected to rise.