MODESTO -- Leona Lovejoy didn't know what she was going to do last year after a freak storm destroyed her carport and poked a hole in the roof of her Modesto mobile home.
Lovejoy, 79, had been struggling financially and knew she could not afford to repair her home of 21 years. She gets $874 a month from Social Security, and her utilities and the rent for her space in the park accounted for about $630 of that.
But Lovejoy said she was lucky. Her son and a friend told her about the Riverbank Housing Authority, and Lovejoy soon moved into one of the subsidized apartments it offered. Her rent is 30 percent of her income. That was a little more than a year ago.
"I feel rich now," Lovejoy said. "I know I'm not, but that's how I feel. I can spend a little money now. I can buy myself a new pair of shoes if I need them."
Lovejoy is divorced. Her work life included jobs as a teletype operator, cannery worker and school janitor. She said she entered the work force as a Riverbank teenager, working on a chicken ranch and cutting apricots in drying yards, where the sliced and pitted fruit would sit in the sun.
"I earned every penny," she said about her monthly Social Security payments. "I worked hard all my life."
The dread she once felt about making ends meet is an unfortunate reality for many of the more than 60,000 Stanislaus County residents who are age 65 and older.
A statistical measure developed by UCLA and the Oakland-based Insight Center for Community Economic Development shows that nearly half of the county's seniors who lived by themselves in 2007 did not have incomes sufficient to meet their basic needs. By that same measure, about one-third of senior couples did not have sufficient incomes.
Measuring elders' poverty
The UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the Insight Center modified the Elder Economic Security Standard Index, or Elder Index, developed by an East Coast university and nonprofit for use in California.
They say it is a much more accurate measure than the federal poverty level because it takes into account such expenses as housing, health care and transportation. The index also recognizes how the cost of living varies from one community to another. The federal poverty level was developed in the early 1960s and uses the cost of food to determine who is poor.
The federal poverty level was $10,210 for one person and $13,690 for a couple in 2007. But according to the Elder Index, a senior who's renting a one-bedroom apartment in Stanislaus County would need at least $18,971 in annual income to meet basic needs. A senior couple who owned their own home would need at least $24,464.
The state started using the Elder Index this year in its efforts to plan and provide services for seniors. The Elder Index found that 47.1 percent of Californians 65 and older did not have sufficient incomes in 2007, the most recent year for which a percentage breakdown was available.
Lovejoy is among many seniors struggling to make ends meet.
One Modesto senior recently canceled her long-distance service to save $3.99 a month. It means she can't call Turlock or Stockton anymore.
Another senior went three years without using the heat in her Modesto apartment to save money. On winter nights, she went to bed in her pajamas and a bathrobe with three blankets to stay warm.
Margie Palomino, director of Stanislaus County's Department of Aging & Veteran Services, said these experiences are far too common.
"I think you see this problem not just in Stanislaus County, but across the state and nation," Palomino said.
She said that too often, seniors have wrongly expected Social Security to be enough to provide for them in their retirement and did not save enough when they worked. She said that problem has been exacerbated by the crushing recession.
Palomino said that before the recession, the most common problem for seniors was figuring out where to go for help. Now they face waiting lists to access services that have been sharply curtailed.
"We have a senior population that is finding it very difficult to find a way to live, to be economically self-sufficient," said Palomino, who has run the Department of Aging & Veteran Services for 12 years. "I've never seen it this bad."
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2316.