Stigma Prevents Seniors from Accessing Benefits

Related topics: Legal & Financial, Insurance, Financial

Senior woman looking embarassed

One in three Americans aged 65+ is economically insecure — lacking the resources needed to meet basic food, housing, and medical needs. While numerous public benefits programs can help, a recent report from the National Council on Aging (NCOA) shows that the stigma surrounding these programs often is a key reason that eligible seniors do not enroll.

The report, An End to Stigma: Challenging the Stigmatization of Public Assistance Among Older Adults and People with Disabilities, is based on in-depth interviews with 40 counselors who work each day to find and enroll eligible seniors into benefits. It examines the stigma surrounding five core public benefits programs, including the:

  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Medicare Savings Programs (MSPs)
  • Medicare Part D Low-Income Subsidy (Extra Help)
  • Medicaid
  • Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)

"The value of these benefits can exceed more than $6,000 annually, which for many low-income older adults would raise their income to more than twice the Federal Poverty Level," said Leslie Fried, Senior Director of the NCOA Center for Benefits Access. "It's critical that we can illustrate how and why stigma stops people from considering these programs and share ways to overcome it. These programs can help struggling older adults pay for basic needs, reduce debt, and maintain their health and independence."

The NCOA team reports, "Internal stigma arises from negative perceptions or connotations about oneself when deciding to learn about, apply for, and participate in benefits programs. Shame and embarrassment about participation in the program are the most common manifestations of internal stigma."

How can we reduce the sense of shame some seniors feel when accessing benefits that they deserve — shame that might actually keep them from getting those benefits? The NCOA says benefits counselors can help. Says Fried, "Counselors are extremely important in overcoming the stigma that threatens to keep older Americans from enrolling in these important programs."

Unfortunately, this counseling may be in increasingly short supply. Fried reports, "A growing senior population and shrinking budgets often limit these resources. Just recently a Senate appropriations bill proposed eliminating funding for the State Health Insurance Assistance Program — or SHIP. The 15,000 local SHIP counselors provide assistance with Medicare issues and with enrolling in the Extra Help and Medicare Savings Programs, making them instrumental in dispelling the stigma around other important benefits programs."

The report offers these recommendations for counselors, and they are good suggestions for anyone who’s helping an older adult access support resources:

  • Challenge the narrative of "deserving" and "undeserving" to dispel notions that a person is "accepting a handout."
  • Focus on the structure of the program to demonstrate that other seniors are also struggling and that applying for assistance is not a personal failing.
  • Correct misconceptions about benefits by explaining exactly how they work.
  • Provide person-centered benefits enrollment assistance to screen clients for all benefits available and help them apply.
  • Demonstrate the value of a benefit to show how it can free up money for rising costs, such as expensive medicine or health care.
Read the entire An End to Stigma: Challenging the Stigmatization of Public Assistance Among Older Adults and People with Disabilities report here.

Ending Stigma booklet cover


NCOA is a respected national leader and trusted partner to help people aged 60+ meet the challenges of aging. Its vision is a just and caring society in which each of us, as we age, lives with dignity, purpose, and security. And its goal is to improve the health and economic security of 10 million older adults by 2020.