Seniors adapt to life on fixed incomes

Story written by Abby Wade,

COLUMBIA — At 84, Vera Henson has great-great grandchildren, and she plans on staying around long enough to add another “great” to the list; Henson still has a steel in her voice when she speaks and despite being hard of hearing, she refuses to miss anything.

Vera Henson in the lobby of Oak Towers Thursday, July 16, 2015. ABBY WADE/Missourian

Vera Henson in the lobby of Oak Towers Thursday, July 16, 2015. ABBY WADE/Missourian

Henson is back at Oak Towers, a low-income public housing facility for adults over the age of 50, for her third time.

Returning, she said she had to swallow her pride.

“It’s hard to walk back in because you’re not better than they are,” she said. “Don’t misunderstand me, you’re no better than they are at all.”

According to the National Council on Aging, roughly 23 million Americans over the age of 60 live below the national poverty level, with a higher percentage of women than men.

“If you could get out of public housing and do better, I say go,” she said. “But for somebody that really needs a home, it’s OK. You just have to learn to adapt and tend to your own business.”

One of the places those individuals find to live is Oak Towers, operated by the Columbia Housing Authority. The authority was founded in 1956 to replace filthy or dangerous residences with safe, sanitary properties for low-income citizens in Columbia, funded by a federal urban renewal grant, according to the CHA website.

Oak Towers, built in December of 1966, is one of the only housing facilities specifically for low-income seniors in Columba. To be eligible, a single person cannot earn more than $36,600 per year. 

The wait list can go up to six months, said April Steffensmeier, the services coordinator at Oak Towers.

“Columbia is really lacking in space in public housing,” she said. “There are way more people that need public housing than what we have available.” 

“There are a variety of reasons people come into public housing,” Steffensmeier said. “It could be generational; that’s what they grew up with. Some people lose spouses and they don’t have the resources necessary to maintain the life they previously had.”

Steffensmeier stresses that Oak Towers is not a nursing home, and she works to help ensure residents lead independent lives. But individuals sometimes struggle to integrate into public housing and come to grips with their financial situation.

“It’s just consolidating your prior life with what’s available to you now, as far as the stuff,” she said. “People come in with a lot of stuff sometimes, and there’s not a lot of space to put all of that. So they’re left with deciding what’s really important to keep around, and what they can move on from.”

Bobby Turner in the lobby of Oak Towers Thursday, July 16, 2015. ABBY WADE/Missourian

Bobby Turner in the lobby of Oak Towers Thursday, July 16, 2015. ABBY WADE/Missourian

Bobby Turner, 67, moved into Oak Towers after a life that began in Waynesville, Missouri, where he dropped out of school after eighth grade.

Later, he worked as a janitor for Atkins Janitorial Service and as salad-maker at the Ramada Inn.

In eighth grade, Turner began working at a local movie theater, and he decided he would rather make a living than continue with school.

“If I went to high school, I could’ve had a better job,” he said. “I could’ve advanced myself in my job. Not having a high school education really hurt.”

Turner moved to Columbia in 1982 to receive help from New Horizons, a program to assist him with his mental health. In 1985, he moved into Oak Towers.

Seventy-five percent of adults over the age of 60 depend on Social Security as their sole source of income, according to the National Council on Aging. Turner collects $862 a month in Social Security, but after paying his rent of $285 a month, paying off the debts he said he owes to finance companies, and buying groceries, he said he’s “just about broke.”

Turner said he couldn’t afford to live anywhere other than Oak Towers.

“Rent is so expensive, and then on top of that, you have to pay utilities,” he said. “Any place else would be a $300-400 a month plus utilities. It’s really expensive.”

In Oak Towers, residents have built their own sense of community.

“Bobby’s an old shoe around here,” Henson said, smiling. “He’s been here for 20-something years. He never has family come see him. I think you’d call him a loner, but he’s a good man, he really is.”

Turner enjoys the dances, bingo and independent lifestyle at Oak Towers.

“I’m free now. I just get to kick back and enjoy life.”

And just as Turner regretted not graduating high school, Henson wished she had continued working.

“I didn’t have anybody to guide me,” she said. “I was a Christian, and I knew to always go to the Lord in prayer about things. But I’m human and I jumped before I listened to what I was supposed to be doing.”

Raised by her grandparents in Warrensburg, Missouri, Henson was a model before she began working as a nurse at University Hospital.

After meeting her first husband, she moved to Columbia where she had four children. Most of that time she spent at home.

“I thought my obligation was to be a wife,” she said. “That’s the way I was trained.”

After her first and second husbands passed, Henson was left with little to live on in retirement. She, too, relies on Social Security, but a significant percentage is deducted for her Medicare benefits. After also paying for food, rent, and her heart disease and arthritis medications, she can barely make ends meet.

Henson met her second husband in 1987 at a jam session when she first moved into Oak Towers. They were together for 10 years and two months, and they moved back to Oak Towers when he became ill. When he passed in 2004, Turner struggled again to sustain herself.

“I think the best part of my life was when I was married,” she said. “I don’t like living alone. And if I didn’t have the Lord, I couldn’t make it.”

“Back then, we lived,” she said.


County has options for poor deceased

Brian Gardner is a local mortician, who owns and operates Columbia Cremation Care Center. LOREN ELLIOT/Missourian

Brian Gardner is a local mortician, who owns and operates Columbia Cremation Care Center. LOREN ELLIOT/Missourian

Story by Erin Sastre.

COLUMBIA — For many people, funerals are an opportunity to celebrate the life of a loved one. But with the cost of a traditional funeral averaging between $7,000 to $10,000, some mourners may be too busy worrying about how they will pay the bill.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 20 percent of Boone County citizens live below poverty level. For the destitute, death brings no relief.

County officials have been setting aside money to help pay the cost of burying or cremating indigent residents since at least 1987, according to county records.

A bill in 2007 revised the policy — cremation now is the only option — and increased the budget allowance, setting the rate at $250 for adults and children to account for increased expenses. Since 2009, a total of $5,000 is budgeted for the service countywide.

The process involves both private and public agencies. When someone who may be impoverished passes away, his or her body is sent first to the medical examiner’s office or morgue. There, any known next of kin are contacted to claim the body.

“Some are here for as long as they can so family can come claim them,” said Stacey Huck of the Boone County medical examiner’s office.

If no one claims the body or no family members are found, the county works with funeral homes in the Boone County area to provide services.

“After 30 days, bodies are considered county property, and we provide a death certificate and cremation,” said Clay Vogl, manager and funeral director at Parker Funeral Service in Columbia.

The next — and often final — stop is the medical examiner’s office.

“The remains are sent back to our office if they aren’t claimed,” Huck said.

Brian Gardner is a local mortician, who owns and operates Columbia Cremation Care Center. LOREN ELLIOT/Missourian

Brian Gardner is a local mortician, who owns and operates Columbia Cremation Care Center. LOREN ELLIOT/Missourian

In rare circumstances, family members who were not aware an indigent resident’s death are able to petition the medical examiner for possession of the remains, she said. But some are never claimed.

“We have several cremated remains (in storage),” she said. “Thirty, if not more.”

When remains go unclaimed, they haven’t necessarily been forgotten, Huck said.

“It’s more likely that family is unwilling or unable financially to claim remains,” she said. “Typically, if a family doesn’t pay, if someone said, ‘We can’t take care of the cost’… the remains will stay in this office indefinitely.”

A county cremation isn’t the only option for financially unstable families, however. Other programs and businesses provide economic options for laying loved ones to rest.

MU’s Gift of Body program offers free cremation of bodies that are donated for study by students in the Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences. The program allows residents — including those who might lack the resources to pay for a traditional funeral — to provide for their own cremation or that of a loved one while contributing to the advancement of medical science.

Military veterans have another option. Many service members qualify for a free gravesite and a government-provided headstone at one of 131 national cemeteries or a state veterans’ cemetery in the state where the veteran lived at the time of death.

Private funeral homes also may offer discounted services to those in need or help tailor a funeral to match a limited budget.

“The service price depends on the needs and means of the families,” said Vogl. “We try to work with them as best as we can.”