Lisa Marsh Ryerson is president of AARP Foundation, the charitable affiliate of AARP. A bold, disciplined and collaborative leader, she sets the Foundation’s strategic direction and steers its efforts to realize an audacious vision: a country free of poverty, where no older person feels vulnerable. Since she took the helm, AARP Foundation has developed pioneering initiatives, explored new avenues for collaboration, and secured unprecedented funding to support programs that truly change lives.
Frank Samson: Welcome to Boomers Today. I’m Frank Sampson and each week we bring you important, useful information on issues facing baby boomers, their parents, and other loved ones. We always have a great show, but today we’ve got a special guest that we’ve had on before, and I’m thrilled to have her on again. We have with us Lisa Marsh Ryerson who is the president of AARP Foundation, the charitable affiliate of AARP. A bold discipline and collaborative leader, she sets the foundation’s strategic direction and steers its efforts to realize an audacious vision, a country free of poverty where no older person feels vulnerable. Since she has been working for AARP, the foundation has developed pioneering initiatives, explored new avenues for collaboration, and secured unprecedented funding to support programs that truly change lives. Lisa, thank you so much for joining us again on Boomers Today. I really appreciate it.
Lisa Marsh Ryerson: Frank, I appreciate all you do on Boomers Today, and I’m delighted to be with you.
Frank: We’re thrilled to have you. I know that there’s a specific report that came out that we’re going to be talking about, but I thought it would just be a good idea before we get into that, give us a quick overview of AARP Foundation. AARP is a household name, but many may not have heard about the foundation. Tell us a little bit more about that.
Lisa: I appreciate the opportunity to talk about our work. You know that’s my favorite conversation point, Frank. AARP Foundation is the charitable affiliate of AARP and we stand for a future without senior poverty and are keenly focused on creating and advancing effective solutions that help low income older adults get what they need in life.
Frank: That’s a wonderful organization and thank you for all you do. So, you’ve come out with this new report. It underscores the difficult financial situation facing so many older adults in America. Tell us a little bit more about some of those highlights because some of it was a little disturbing to me as I read through it.
Lisa: Let’s talk about it because you certainly are steeped in this field, so I know we’re going to have a very interesting conversation. As you know, the work of the foundation is based in creating and advancing an effective solution. We are continually on a quest to deepen our research and our understanding and insights from the low to moderate income 50 plus. We are really delighted to support this study by the Center for Financial Services Innovation that would confirm insights we had and give us new information. Frank, it is, as you said, disturbing in that, but not surprising for those of us who work in this field.
Frank: Right. That’s true.
Lisa: Don’t you agree?
Frank: I would agree. It wasn’t surprising as I went through it, but it’s still hard to read.
Lisa: It is. It is hard to read, and I think that the Center for Financial Services Innovation did a great job of both further analyzing data from their health, their pulse survey on financial fitness in essence, but they also developed personas and helped focus groups to just focus on the LMI population in 50 plus. It confirmed what we know and that is that tens of millions of older adults are struggling. In fact, it estimates that, of 50 million people who are 50 and older are low to moderate income, that of that 50 million, 83% meaning 42 million people are challenged or struggling with one or multiple aspects of their financial health.
Frank: So, can you tell us a little bit more about how retirement in the United States has changed over time? It used to be people would retire, they’d have their social security, they’d have their pension, and they’d get their mortgage paid off and all that. Things have changed. Tell us what the study showed regarding that.
Lisa: Times really have changed. The idea that I’m going to have one stable job for the rest of my life, one that will allow me the opportunity to save for my retirement and that might have a pension plan, is no longer our reality. Now, the study highlights what you and I know already which is that older adults, 50 and older, who are members of marginalized populations, have always struggled more financially.
Rarely do we take a job and stay in that one job or career across our life span. We have older adults who are finding themselves needing to change jobs. Maybe they’ve been laid off. Maybe they have not completely recovered from job loss or income loss in the recession. We have ageism as you and I know, and we have wage stagnation. Ultimately, we have less opportunity for individuals to have access to meaningful savings programs at their place of employment, which is so important as well.
Frank: Yes, we’re certainly seeing a trend. We’re also seeing higher absenteeism and turnover of employees at businesses. Why? Because they’re having to take care of an aging parent, or have to do caregiver work. Which just goes to show that this has a domino effect in so many ways.
Lisa: You’re absolutely right because again. I think the report calls it the catch-22 of family. We have older adults who are in what we call the sandwich generation. They might have children that depend on them financially at the same time that they are acting as the primary caregiver and financial supporter of their own parents. You also touched on debt burden. It used to be that it was always the goal. Pay off your mortgage or pay off your debt before you leave work, but that’s less possible for people today.
Frank: There are a lot of people my age or people that I know of who still have their kids, or even their grandkids, living with them. It can put a financial strain on them, for sure. Did the report get into that at all? Into that subject matter?
Lisa: It does, and it really highlights the complexity of these relationships. Our families and our connections are a source of great joy and a source of support, but there can also be challenges like the ones you mentioned. It’s not a surprise that there are family members or children who can’t find affordable housing. The upper end what someone should be spending is 30% of their income on housing. But for so many older adults and individuals across a life span, they cannot afford the high rents.
Frank: I know recently there has been a concern about people entering our country, but what hasn’t been talked about is how many people are leaving our country because they can’t afford the high cost of living and they need to be somewhere that can provide them with the support and resources they need.
Lisa: Yes, you’re touching on just the issue of access to quality care for all. In the report, there’s a statistic that shows that about 38% of low to moderate income older adults are forgoing some type of healthcare because of the stress and strain in their finances. This choice has a compounding impact. If you can’t take care of a health need now, it will only get worse. That makes it more difficult to remain healthy, to earn wages and to support yourself.
Frank: Is the 50 and older section of the population in better shape, according to the report?
Lisa: Yes, the high income 50 plus group reports less concern with their financial health
Frank: I know you touched upon it, but could you go into more detail regarding the effect of healthcare and medication on this vulnerable group that we’re talking about?
Lisa: For the vulnerable population, the healthcare aspect is so important because there’s a challenge around multiple factors. If you’re living with strained finances, or you’re living paycheck to paycheck, then it can be difficult to even afford the copay at the doctor’s office. Or you could afford one surgery, but not the follow-up procedures after it. The report really shows the need for all of us across a life span to have access to quality healthcare and services for total physical and emotional well being.
Frank: So, Lisa, in talking about this report and study that’s done, I wanted to talk about technology and maybe the role technology could play in any of this. Give us an overview, if you can and we can maybe then get into more specifics.
Lisa: I think a very promising recommendation from the study or a finding from the study is that adults who are 50 and older who are low to moderate income really welcome the opportunities that financial tools and services will bring to their lives, as they struggle with some of those five key financial health challenges that they’re experiencing when they’re 50 and older. As we have coaching and syntech tools and financial services tools that are available using technology, we can reach more people than we can reach through direct service programs. Now, there are some differences. We will be working with and certainly do at AARP Foundation, with older adults, some of whom will still want a higher touch environment. Maybe those hybrid opportunities to have tools and resources online, but also human touch as well.
Frank: That’s great. Now, we all know that people are working longer and late rinto their lives, so is there a way that technology could help with that?
Lisa: Oh, absolutely. One area is that the use of technology, which is growing any type of business or organization, whether that’s for profit or a non-profit, provides an opportunity for us to either freshen skills or up-skill or add new skills for older adults so that they can work in a position that might be based on the use of technology. That is one area that you’re talking about. But also technology itself allows us a platform and an opportunity to be sure that we’re providing skills training and information to adults who are low to moderate income and are 50 plus. Using technology, so digital tools and services for learning is another area.
Frank: What role is AARP Foundation playing or plans on playing and I know the study just came out, but this was something I know you do all the time to provide, your organization to help provide some of the funding to provide this type of training or how does all that work, and how can the public play a role in this to help in some way?
Lisa: The study is, as I said earlier, so important to us because it gives us a broader base of insight so that we can be sure that when we’re creating or advancing solutions because we create some on our own as you know Frank, at AARP Foundation and also source and find great solutions that are occurring in other organizations across sectors that we want to fuel so that they can scale. As the report confirmed, it’s time to double down on our efforts here at AARP Foundation as it relates to successful programs that we already have, such as Back to Work 50 plus. We’re working with community partners, whether it’s community college or workforce investment boards to provide learning and new skills development for people who are 50 and older in their communities. It has reinforced the study of the work that we’re doing in what I would say a self employment or giver platform economy, so our opportunity in a program called Work for Yourself at 50 Plus, which helps older adults make wiser decisions about whether or not the gig economy or self employment is a smart choice in terms of income generation.
Definitely the insights from the report are encouraging. We’re pushing ourselves to use human-centered design principles and of course this report is squarely in that field. We want to deeply understand the need of the low to moderate income 50 plus to ensure that we are innovative in developing tools and services that are relevant and that actually solve the problem or meet the need. That means we’ll further our work in financial services or syntech tools and applications that can provide some sort of online coaching and savings opportunities, for example.
Frank: Last time you were on the show, there was also a report done and it had to do with how many people are alone and loneliness and so how does that play into all of this as well?
Lisa: I’m so glad that you’re pulling threads of our previous conversation through this conversation because as you and I have discussed on other occasions, what we’re aware of in our work and our commitment is that individuals live whole lives in communities. So as we’re addressing the multiplicity of needs, we have to do that in a holistic approach. We discussed on a previous podcast that low income older adults are at greater risk of being lonely and socially isolated. That is true for the 15 million low to moderate income older adults. They are at much greater risk of isolation, meaning lack of connections to friends and family, as importantly lack of connection to community tools and resources that will help them thrive and be financially resilient. I want us to remain really attuned to that risk. That’s also where technology can help us and it’s why, at AARP Foundation we are growing opportunities to engage voice automated technologies. For example, for older adults, whether or not that’s in affordable senior housing or other ways that we could use leap frogging technologies to help older adults know about programs in their communities but also remain connected to resources that can help them meet their financial challenges.
Frank: We all have a lot of work ahead of us, don’t we?
Lisa: We do. Older adults who have worked so hard and contributed to so many organizations and their communities and families shouldn’t be facing these struggles. I know it’s something that upsets both of us and the listeners and society, but the uplifting part is the advancements in technology and in knowledge can lead us to solutions that we can scale and sustain more affordably so that we can reach more people in need.
Frank: How could people learn more about AARP Foundation, number one. How could they learn more about the report? Can they get access to it and also those that have the means, if they’d like to contribute and help in the efforts that AARP Foundation is doing. I know it’s a long question, but what can we do to help?
Lisa: Oh, it’s a great question, Frank. First of all, I would say, stay tuned for what I hope are more Frank and Lisa conversations on your wonderful podcast where we dig into these topics because it does provide such a great learning experience and I appreciate it. I would ask all listeners to head to our website, so www.aarpfoundation.org. AARP Foundation dot ORG. On the website, you’ll have access to the full report so you’ll be able to read the study which I think will be helpful and also, find information about tools and services that are available both in place or communities across the nation. Also, on the website, as you nodded to Frank, we have so many people, older adults who are not struggling, who care deeply about their neighbors so I want to take a moment to thank all of our donors. It’s very easy to donate and support our work online, on aarpfoundation.org. You also can learn how to connect with us because we need your great ideas too. A culture of innovation means that we are constantly and continually looking for fresh, new ideas that we can vet and test and learn.
Frank: Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of AARP Foundation, thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciate it.
Lisa: Frank, it’s always a pleasure to be with you. Thanks for all of your great work.
Frank: Thank you and I want to thank everybody else out there for joining us. Just be safe out there. We’ll talk to you all soon.