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Health & Wellness

‘Aging is primarily a women’s issue’: Women face longer lives, less retirement savings

Maura Conti
Tom Dinki
Maura Conti, 59, stands in the kitchen of her manufactured home in Clarence. Conti moved into the senior housing park in 2020 after her late husband went into a nursing home and she could no longer afford their home.

Fifty-nine-year-old Maura Conti met her husband James through her job at the Buffalo Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

“I used to say that I love the veterans so much that I married one,” she said.

They bought a house in Pembroke with an acre of land. Being outside taking care of the property kept James active.

But once James, 23 years Conti’s senior, was diagnosed with dementia and eventually transitioned into a nursing home, Conti found that living there was unsustainable. 

“I said, ‘I can't afford the nursing home. I can't afford to upkeep it. I can't afford to live here anymore,’” she said.

In 2020, Conti sold their house and moved into a manufactured housing park for seniors in Clarence. She prefers having less upkeep than a traditional home, and enjoys the park’s close proximity to a bike path.

She was even able to eventually get her husband’s nursing home care covered by Medicaid, and preserve her own 401(k) retirement account.

Maura Conti
Tom Dinki
Maura Conti enjoys that her new home has less upkeep than the Pembroke home she shared with her late husband, which included an acre of land.

But it’s been a transition to no longer be a caregiver. Her husband died last November, while their adult daughter has a family of her own.

“It's like, ‘Jeez, I got nobody to care for now,’” she said. “It's like 40 years I've been constantly caring for people.”

Conti’s experience is typical for a lot of women as they get older. Women on average live five years longer than men, while three in five U.S. caregivers are women.

“So if we're talking about a heterosexual couple, a wife has a higher chance of outliving her husband,” said a Buffalo-based elder law attorney and advocate who advised Conti, Kelly Sarama. “We also know that, historically, women are more likely to be caregivers, not only of children, but of their families in general. And this can include care later in life to their spouse.”

Longer life spans mean women need more money for retirement than men, yet their increased caregiving responsibilities, coupled with the gender pay gap, make it difficult for them to save as much as men.

Households headed by single women have an average retirement savings of just $37,000, compared to $62,000 for households headed by single men, according to an analysis of the Federal Reserve Board’s 2016 Consumer Finance Survey.

This can lead to women becoming impoverished later in life. In fact, 12% of women 65 and older live in poverty, compared to just 7% of older men, according to data from the Social Security Administration.

This can be seen in services for older adults, too. Two-thirds of the New York State Office for the Aging’s clients for food, transportation and other programs are females, with the average being an 83-year-old female who is low income and lives alone.

“And so all of the services we provide are highly geared toward women,” said Director Greg Olsen. “We have a lot of men that utilize our services, but aging is primarily a women's issue.”

Why women have less for retirement

Pauleen Mara stood on the upstairs patio of her Buffalo apartment complex and took in the view. There’s a large 19th century, gothic-style Catholic church in the distance, as well as an open field directly across the street.

“It’d be nice if we could get a garden right there,” she suggested.

Mara lives at Westminster Commons, an 84-unit senior affordable housing complex that opened last summer on the city’s East Side. The low rent and building elevator were ideal for Mara, 57, as she’s on Social Security Disability Insurance with neck, back and heart problems.

“I go to a chiropractor three days a week and physical therapy twice a week. That's helping me a lot,” she said. “Trying not to get any more surgeries. My body's better right now.”

Women incur more health care costs than men throughout their lives, generally due to factors like pregnancy and longer life expectancy. A 65-year-old woman will spend about $47,000 more on health care during retirement than a 65-year-old man.

It’s just one of many reasons women often struggle to save enough money for retirement.

Pauleen Mara
Tom Dinki
Pauleen Mara, 57, stands on the balcony of Westminster Commons, a senior affordable housing complex that opened last summer in Buffalo.

Women earned just 83 cents for every $1 a man earned in 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and they’re not expected to reach full pay equity until 2059. Women make up nearly six in 10 low-wage workers.

“When you think about the low-wage workforce, you're often talking about women,” said Tracey Gronniger, an attorney with Justice in Aging, a Washington, D.C.-based elder law advocacy group. “Lower income means over a lifetime that there's less in terms of savings, and less for emergencies, which kind of compounds on itself and means that there's not enough money to really live as you're getting older.”

Caregiving, either for an elderly spouse or parent, or children, can also prevent women from earning more. Just 71% of mothers with children under 18 participated in the workforce in 2020, compared to 92% of fathers. Raising children is also more likely to prevent women from getting a promotion or advancing their careers than men.

“I would have pursued a bigger career, taken on more, but family is always number one,” Conti said. “Had I been the man in the situation, it probably would have been different.”

All these issues are more pronounced for older women of color and older LGBTQ women. They are more likely to be impoverished and serve as caregivers than white and heterosexual women.

“When we talk about the challenges that older women face in general, it's just magnified for older women of color and for LGBTQ women, who are dealing with more in terms of discrimination, and less in terms of income and wealth,” said Gronniger, who is directory attorney for Justice in Aging’s economic security team. “Just the differences there are really significant.”

Earning less throughout a lifetime will not only impact a woman’s retirement savings, it will impact her Social Security payments as well. Women’s average Social Security benefit is $13,505 a year, compared to $17,374 for men.

Mara keeps her expenses down with her two-bedroom Westminster Commons apartment and its $685 rent, which includes utilities, as well as getting creative with her food budget, buying groceries in bulk and growing her own vegetables.

She said she saved money for retirement while working as a preschool teacher, before her health problems forced her to stop working a decade ago. She hopes to eventually leave that money to her adult son, who lives with her and serves as her caregiver.

“You have to invest in yourself, you have to invest in your future, because somebody could pass away or have a health crisis and all your money could go with it,” she said.

How to improve women’s financial standing

Women’s financial picture may be getting better. Millennial women are set to be the most financially independent generation of women ever.

However, there’s also concern that the COVID-19 pandemic has set things back. Women lost 5.4 million jobs during the first year of the pandemic, nearly 1 million more than men.

Justice in Aging released a report back in 2018 suggesting ways to improve older women’s standing. They include enacting paid leave policies, providing Social Security credit to caregivers, and creating a long-term care benefit fund to reduce out-of-pocket spending and having to spend down to be eligible for Medicaid.

So Gronniger admits the group was disappointed when President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, which included a Medicaid coverage expansion and increased Child Tax Credit, stalled in the Senate.

“But I think that the recommendations that we made in the report are definitely part of the conversation that people are having around how to improve the lives of older adults,” she said. “So we’re just going to keep pushing for them and make sure that Congress knows that we care about these issues, and that these are things that need to happen. I think, at some point, we will see some progress and we will be able to make headway on them.”

Now that her husband has passed, Conti plans to retire from the VA this year and take a cross-country road trip with a female friend.

“I cared for him for so long,” she said. “This is my time now.”

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