Typically, any person over 65 is considered “elderly” or a “senior.” In Illinois, there are over 1.6 million individuals over 65, totaling around 12.5 percent of the state’s total population. By 2025, that number is expected to grow to around 2.2 million, or 16.6% of the population.
In the city of Chicago, around 10.3 percent of the population is between 65 and 84, and that number is expected to more than double by the year 2040. That doubling does not even take into account the elderly population that is 85 or older; life expectancy in the United States continue to rise, and that population is also expected to grow over the coming decades.
Seniors face many issues in their day-to-day lives, from chronic health issues to being able to remain independent as they age. The general lack of aging-in-place options and resources for seniors is major barrier to individuals’ ability to remain in their homes. An AARP study found that 90% of seniors age 65 and older desire to stay in their own homes as long as possible. Sadly, lack of resources makes this difficult, as seniors often do not have the services that they need in order to care for both themselves and their home while staying in place. Or, even if the services are available, either the senior cannot afford them, or the service organizations are already so overburdened that they cannot serve everyone who has need. It frequently happens that seniors are forced to move out of their homes because of lack of finances and an inability to maintain their house and lifestyle.
In Chicago, another issue that a surprising amount of seniors face is homelessness. In recent years, the number of elderly homeless individuals has been growing, with many homeless services agencies seeing around a 26% rise in homeless older adults served between 2001 and 2006. The median age of first homelessness is around 47 years old.
There are several main problems that can contribute to homelessness in later life. They include issues such as ageism in employment and chronic health issues. Often, companies want to hire younger employees, and find ways to get rid of older workers, as they are seen as less useful than workers of the younger population. This pushes the aging population out of the workforce, depriving of the income that they need. This loss of income can lead to an increased likelihood of becoming homeless.
In addition, elders often face more health problems that can be draining of resources, especially finances. The stress of paying for medical tests and medications can add a huge strain on elders’ finances, and may contribute to the rates of eventual homelessness. This creates a cycle, as someone who is homeless with health problems has less of a chance of being able to work, creating more barriers to them getting out of their situation.
If seniors meet the financial requirements, they may be eligible to receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI). For some, SSI may be the only available source of income. Seniors with a disability, or who have worked for long enough and paid Social Security Taxes, may be eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance.
The Disabled Population in Chicago
The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law by George H. W. Bush in 1990. This act, at its core, provides “equal opportunity for people with disabilities in public accommodations, commercial facilities, employment, transportation, state and local government services and telecommunications.” It is considered a major civil rights achievement, giving individuals with disabilities both protection and an equal chance at success in life.
According to the language of the ADA, “the term disability means, with respect to an individual: (a) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual; (b) a record of such impairment; or (c) being regarded as having such an impairment.” This means that a disability can be any impairment, from physical to psychological, that results in a limited ability to take part in any of life’s daily activities. It must be documented that the individual has the symptoms of that impairment, and they must be considered to have that certain disability, by themselves and medical or psychological professionals.
Disabilities can include a multitude of unique impairments. Generally, they can be broken into one of five different categories: mobility, vision, hearing, speech, or cognitive/developmental. The disability might be congenital, meaning it’s a developmental issue that’s existed since birth, or it might be due to a health problem or accident.
An individual with a mobility disability might use a wheelchair or other assistive device, such as a cane, walker, crutches, or splints.
Vision disabilities include blindness and other types vision loss or distortion.
Hearing disabilities might be loss of hearing or complete deafness.
Disabilities involving speech include impediments, muteness, and other cognitive or physical disabilities that make understanding speech, or using language, difficult or impossible. Cognitive disabilities might include conditions such as aphasia, or other conditions, like ALS, that affect speech and language abilities.
Cognitive and developmental disabilities include a wide range of issues. Developmental disabilities, such as learning disabilities, dementia, Down syndrome, autism, and cerebral palsy, can impact functioning in all areas. Mental illnesses are also considered to fit into this area, and can include severe cases of schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, depression, and other conditions. Finally, issues such as problems resulting from traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), would also fit into cognitive/developmental disabilities.
Finally, there are also medical conditions that may be considered disabilities, though they might not fit neatly into any of the five categories. Often, it is harder to have these conditions considered disabilities, for a variety of reasons. Fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and endometriosis are conditions that are considered debilitation, but it is often hard to get them to be considered disabilities, both on a social and a legal level.
Like with elders, individuals with disabilities have two main options available to them, should they not be able to work: SSI and SSDI. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is an option for disabled adults and children, and is based on financial need and limited income and resources. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) may be provided to the individual is that have worked long enough and also paid into Social Security taxes. Adult children who have a disability that started before the age of 22 are also eligible for SSDI.
Even with the availability of government assistance for individuals with disabilities who might not be able to work, people who are disabled still have many barriers and issues that they must face. The threat of homelessness, should they not qualify for assistance and not have a source of income, is very prevalent. In Chicago, 16% of the homeless population has some sort of physical disability and 23% of the Chicago homeless population has some form of severe mental illness. Often, the root of the reason these individuals became homeless is their disability. Like with elders and homelessness, people with disabilities often face a cycle that contributes to their continued situation: their disability made it so they could not work, which caused loss of income and homelessness, and their disability in turn makes it difficult to find work to get themselves out of their situation.
In addition, individuals with disabilities, especially mental disabilities, face much discrimination in the United States. Often, the discrimination is not overt (such as the person being fired for their disability); rather, it takes more of a form of prejudice. Individuals who are disabled might not be considered as worthy or able as those who do not have disabilities. Discrimination can also take the form of not making the necessary, reasonable adjustments that individuals with disabilities need. One example of this, a big issue of the past few weeks in Chicago, is businesses (and home owners) not shoveling snow off of sidewalks. Shoveling is a reasonable adjustment to make, and a necessary one for individuals with mobility issues such as use of a wheelchair or other mobility aids.
People with severe mental illness may be considered broken or not worthy of time or effort. They may be avoided by employers, or people might think that they’re dangerous. These attitudes create a barrier for people with mental illnesses when it comes to finding and keeping employment, as well as with life interactions in general. These outlooks and stereotypes can make life very difficult for people with disabilities when it comes to many areas of life.
What Does CDEL Do?
The Center for Disability & Elder Law is committed to providing service to low-income members of the elderly and disabled populations of Chicago. Often, these populations are underserved – they cannot afford the help, so no one provides any, and their legal needs go unmet. CDEL provides pro bono legal work to individuals who are elderly or have disabilities, helping close the gap that exists in access to legal advice and representation. Services provided include anything from legal help with divorces, guardianships, and power of attorney, to issues with housing, unpaid bills, and landlords.
If CDEL cannot provide services, for reasons such as the individual living outside of Cook County, or having too high or an income, or even because the legal issue is beyond the scope of what CDEL does, we provide resources of other organizations and law offices that have the ability to provide service to the individual. We never want someone to walk away without any sort of help, even when we are not the ones who are able to give it. CDEL partners with a wide range of other organizations in Chicago and Illinois who we work with in providing services.