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1 in 5 Wadena County seniors live in poverty

One out of every five Wadena County senior citizens is living in poverty, according to a report by the Central Minnesota Council on Aging.

Using data from the 2006-2010 American Community Survey, the council showed that 20.2 percent of people age 65 and older in Wadena County have income below the poverty line - more than twice as high as the state average (9.63 percent) and the highest in the Council's 14-county service area, which averages 10.72 percent.

A separate 2012 report by the Mahube-Otwa Community Action Council showed that the federal poverty guideline is $10,400 per year for an elder individual or $14,000 for an elder couple. Average annual Social Security payments in Wadena were $11,136 for an individual and $18,115 for a couple.

Diane Leaders, family services director at Otter Tail-Wadena Community Action Council (OTWCAC), said one of the reasons for the high poverty rate is that many people retired with only Social Security and no pension or savings.

Leaders said a senior's life in poverty is a fixed income - their income stays the same, while expenses continue to increase.

A cost of living adjustment is set for the entire year, even if some parts of the year are marked by higher heating bills or medical bills.

"There have been some recent years where Social Security has not increased, or increased very little," Dana Patsie of OTWCAC said.

Another problem contributing to senior citizen poverty is foreclosure crisis.

Leaders said a concerning trend OTWCAC has worked with involves seniors in foreclosure who have a fixed income and shelter that is in danger.

Patsie said some seniors facing foreclosure have been in their home for decades.

Leaders added that OTWCAC tries to help clients understand the benefit of having one's mortgage paid prior to retirement.

Lori Vrolson, executive director of Central Minnesota Council on Aging, said poverty disproportionately hits older women, especially if they did not work outside the home or worked in low-paying jobs.

Vrolson also said, historically, lower wages in greater Minnesota are one reason senior poverty rates are higher than those in the Twin Cities area. She added that in Minnesota, the average cost of housing, health care, food and transportation is $19,000, but the median income of women in retirement is $12,000.

Pam Jenson of Wadena County Social Services said the county is a more impoverished area as a whole, and the poverty rate of elderly people reflects the general population.

"It's not just elderly living below the poverty level, but children - 24 percent of the children in Wadena County live below the poverty level too," she said.

Other counties with generally high poverty rates did not have high rates of seniors in poverty.

Cass County, next to Wadena, also has tended to rank high in general poverty, but has only 7.7 percent of seniors in poverty - lower than the state average and Wadena's numbers.

"But you also have more lake community up in Cass County," Vrolson said. "They're retiring up there to the lakes, and they're more likely to be higher-income individuals."

Of the Central Minnesota Council on Aging's service area, Cass County has the highest proportion of people aged 60 and up at 29 percent. Wadena has the second highest at 26.9 percent of the population.

Outside help is available for seniors in poverty, but Leaders said older people are generally less aware of it and probably less comfortable asking for it.

Vrolson said programs available to help older adults include SNAP (formerly referred to as food stamps), assistance for medications, utility assistance and the Senior LinkAge Line.

"We have a Senior Linkage advocate that covers Wadena County," she said.

Seniors can continue to seek help at the OTWCAC office in New York Mills through June 30, before a phase into Mahube-Otwa Community Action Partnership.

Senior Programs Director Karen Lenius said Mahube-Otwa will have an office in downtown Wadena starting July 1. The office will be at 311 S. Jefferson, the old Ebner Insurance location.

The office will run a homemaking and chore program, in addition to other programs. Mahube-Otwa will also contract with workers in the community to do chores, such as snow removal, lawn maintenance, moving and packing.

The program, which receives funds from the Older Americans Act, is to be available to people 60 and up and the disabled.

Lenius said in addition to helping people with low incomes, the program is also accessible to people with higher incomes - they would just pay a higher portion of the costs for those services.

OTWCAC can be reached until June 30 by calling 218-385-2900, Mahube-Otwa in Detroit Lakes can be contacted by dialing 218-847-1385, and the Senior LinkAge Line can be accessed by calling 800-333-2433.