Note: The term elderly refers to people 65 years of age and older.


  • Growing Numbers: In 1997, there were 31.9 million elderly people: 13.4 million men and 18.5 million women. That’s eleven times more people over 65 years than in 1900. The number under 65 years has only tripled since then.
  • Living Longer: In 1776, life expectancy was 35 years. By 1996, life expectancy had climbed to 76 years. Women average 79 years, with whites living until 80 and African Americans to 74 years. Men average 73 years, with whites living until 74 and African Americans to 66 years.
  • Reaching 65: Those reaching 65 years can expect, on the average, to live another 17 years. Again, this varies by sex and race. White women have 19 more years, but African American women have 17 more. White men have 15.7 more years but African American men 13.6 more.
  • More Women: For every 100 women who are 65 years or older, there are 69 men. Among those 85 years or older, there are only 39 men for every 100 women.
  • Alone or Together: 75% of elderly men living outside institutions (like nursing homes) have a spouse; 41% of elderly women do. When health fails, elderly men are likely to have a spouse for support; elderly women more often live and die alone. And, the older one gets, the greater the need for help bathing, getting around the house, and preparing meals. In 1993, eight of ten elderly people living alone (outside institutions) were women.


  • Health Care Needs: Approximately 80% of the elderly population will face at least one of the following chronic, limiting illnesses or conditions: heart disorders, arthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis, senile dementia, and ones that affect respiratory and digestive systems.
  • Doctors and Hospitals: On average, persons between 65-74 years visit doctors ½ve times per year and those over 75 years visit six times. (Note: Those between 22-44 years averaged two visits per annum.) In addition, the majority of those 65 years and over had hospital care in the past ½ve years (1994).
  • Insurance: Virtually all (99%) those over 65 years have health insurance, 96% having Medicare. This percentage is higher than for those under 65 years. However, insurance coverage is increasingly inadequate for many elderly person's needs; poor elderly people report having to choose between buying food or buying medicine.
  • Nutrition Programs: In 1995, over 250 million meals were provided elderly people through federally supported programs. Nearly one half of these went to those who were homebound due to disability, illness, or geographic isolation. Still, many poor elderly people report skipping meals because of a lack of food and money.
  • Food Stamp Programs: In 1995, coupons were used by 2 million elderly people, but only 35% of eligible elderly persons had applied for them.
  • Physical Safety: Elderly persons feel particularly vulnerable to crime, with 55% afraid to walk alone at night. Only 40% of 40-49 year olds had similar fears.


  • Poverty: Approximately one out of every ten elderly persons was living in official poverty in 1996. This is between three and four million people. About 14% of elderly women and 7% of elderly men were officially poor. Also, 9.4% of the elderly whites, 25.3% of elderly African Americans, 24.4% for Hispanics were poor. And, for all groups, the older you get, the more likely it is you will become poor.
  • Median Income: The median income for elderly men in 1996 was $16,886 for whites, $11,570 for African Americans, and $9,794 for Hispanics. The median incomes of elderly women were substantially less: $9,654 for whites, $7,067 for African Americans, and $6,652 for Hispanics.
  • Social Security: For many, social security is all they have. However, some, have other means of support: interest (67%), pensions (32%), dividends (20%), wages & salaries (14%), and rents, royalties, and trusts (11%).
  • Housing: The overwhelming majority of elderly people live in households not in institutions. Half of the elderly poor spend 50% or more of their income in housing costs. Over 1/3 of all federally subsidized housing is occupied by older persons.

Sources: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States (yearly); U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Sixty-Five Plus in the United States, 1995; Yntema,S. (Ed.) Americans 55 & Older: A Changing Market, Ithaca, NY: New Strategist Publications, 1997; Weimer, J.P Many Elderly at Nutritional Risk, Food Review 20:1 (Jan.-April 1997), 42-48.