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Well-Founded Worries for Older Women

Kevyn Burger June 18, 2019
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A new survey identifies wider economic security gap is among older women’s worries.

Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 40 years ago, Alice Johnson considers herself lucky. At 63, the progression of the neurodegenerative disorder has been slow; she still works in manufacturing and enjoys her garden and her grandchildren’s soccer games.

But Johnson worries whether her luck will hold. In the past year, she stopped giving herself shots every other day because she could no longer afford the medication, prescribed to prevent relapses.

“My share of the cost was $3,400 a month but the drug company had assistance to help pay for it. This year they say they don’t have funding,” she said.  “My husband and I have jobs and health insurance but who could afford that? MS is a mystery. No one knew for sure if this drug was helping me or not, so I’m just hoping nothing will happen.”

Skyrocketing prices for prescription drugs is just one of the economic issues troubling older American women, according to research released by the National Council on Aging in partnership with global polling and data firm Ipsos.

Between May 29-June 14, 2019, pollsters quizzed 1227 Americans aged 60 and over on a range of financial matters. Both male and female respondents identified paying for health care and medication and losing their independence as their top concerns. But the study found the rate of women’s worries surpass their male counterparts.

Key Research Findings

In a release announcing the findings, Anna Maria Chávez, NCOA Executive Vice President and Chief Growth Officer, defined the ever-rising cost of health care and prescription drugs as “…a real and imminent threat to a safe, secure and dignified retirement for aging adults,” regardless of gender. She noted that the survey showed that women are more sensitive to the pinch.

The survey’s key findings among women aged 60 and over:

  • 60% are worried health care costs will exceed retirement income
  • 46% are worried that prescription medicine costs will exceed retirement income
  • 51% are worried about outliving their savings
  • 59% are worried about losing their independence

In each category, women’s worries outpaced those identified by male respondents who were asked the same questions. The widest gap was with this finding: 52% of women are worried about becoming a burden to their families, a full 12% more than men

Their concerns are well-founded. Statistically, women live longer, have more expensive health care costs and enter retirement with the same dilemma that has dogged many of them throughout their lives—the gender income disparity.

A lifetime of lower wages means many women have lower retirement benefits and less money saved than their male contemporaries.

“An Uneven Playing Field”

At 85, Alice Williamson admits that she has no savings, but her long career as a transit bus driver provides her with a comfortable retirement. In addition to her social security, Williamson gets a monthly pension and takes advantage of retiree benefits guaranteed by her union—low doctor visit co-pays, subsidized Medicare supplemental insurance and affordable prescriptions to treat her high blood pressure, high cholesterol, dry mouth and depression.

“I realize how lucky I am compared to a lot of my friends who worked all their lives but are living on, like, nothing now,” she said. “Driving the bus, I didn’t have a problem with equal pay because we were all in the union so we all earned the same and got the same benefits negotiated for us. I didn’t realize at the time how much that would mean to me now.”

Many women entering or living in retirement today had shorter work careers due to their non-paying responsibilities and so are more likely to face financial insecurity.

“Those (survey) results underscore the reality of an uneven playing field for women in the American economy and the economic opportunity cost after years as mothers and caregivers and not wage-earners,” said Chávez.

“Older women are feeling the very real consequences of the income gap during retirement.”

Worried but Happy

Despite the very real worries revealed by the polling, those tracked in the NCOA/Ipsos survey also expressed satisfaction.

“Most people 60 and older report being pretty happy with their current lives,” reports Annie Weber, Senior Vice President at Ipsos. “That is despite majorities of this group reporting worry about their physical health and their health care costs exceeding their savings.”

That would certainly be true of Alice Williamson. The great-grandmother is an inveterate online dater, church-goer and outdoors enthusiast. She’s spending much of her summer in her camper, parked at a lake near her home in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota.

“I relax, take long walks, go swimming in the lake,” she said. “I’ve got a pretty great life.”

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Kevyn Burger

Kevyn Burger is a freelance feature writer and broadcast producer. She was named a 2018 Journalist in Aging Fellow by the Gerontological Society of America. Based in Minneapolis, Kevyn is the mother of three young adults and one rescue terrier.

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