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‘Everything’s going up’: Seniors struggle with the prices of food, fuel, and medicine

A key inflation measure grew at the fastest pace in 40 years

The last time prices rose this fast, today’s seniors were in their prime and drawing paychecks. Now they’re older, retired, and feeling the crunch in a world where everything suddenly costs more.

Higher rents and heating bills and steeper gas and prescription drug prices are pinching almost everyone. But older folks on fixed incomes are being squeezed hardest. Lately, seniors make up nearly half — more than in the past — of those stopping by a food pantry on Mission Hill run by Action for Boston Community Development, an antipoverty group, on the three days each week it distributes chicken, fruit, cereal, and other provisions.

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“Everything’s going up: the pork, the beef, all the spices,” said Beatriz Negron, 74, a Panamanian-born retired day care worker who lives in a subsidized senior apartment and banters with the center’s staffers in rapid-fire Spanish. “You know how the Spanish people are. We cook with so many things. And all the prices are getting higher.”

On Thursday, a widely watched measure known as the consumer price index showed that US prices climbed at an annual rate of 7.5 percent in January, the fastest pace since 1982. Inflation grew at a slightly slower clip of 6.3 percent in the Boston area, where costs are already far above the national average. Both jumps were higher than forecast, a sign that production isn’t keeping up with demand for goods and services.

Jenny Sugilio (right), the director of the center, helped Beatriz Negron load groceries into her car at the Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD) Parker Hill Fenway Neighborhood Service Center. Negron has noticed the rapid rise of food prices and visits the pantry once a month for food.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Economists place the blame on COVID-linked labor shortages and supply chain disruptions, and puzzle over how long these obstacles will continue and how high prices might soar. But it’s already clear that the sticker shocks rattling shoppers at the supermarket for the past six months are likely to persist through much of the year.

That means more financially strapped seniors are arriving at the neighborhood service center in Mission Hill from nearby Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, where some food pantries closed during the pandemic, said Jenny Sugilio, the center’s director.

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“We’re starting to see an increase in seniors because prices are so high,” she said.

Outside the center, where residents wait in line in the mornings, fresh loaves of bread are stacked on a cart next to cans of refried beans and sparking water. Low-income residents can come to the pantry once a month and pick up food donated by the Boston Food Bank and area stores. The rest of the time, many rely on food stamps and their Social Security payments to afford groceries at the market.

The cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security, the primary income source for many lower-income seniors, was 5.9 percent for 2022, the biggest annual bump in years. But that was more than offset by increases in what people often pay for bread-and-butter needs.

“Social Security goes up a couple of dollars,” said Negron, who goes by the nickname of Betty in the neighborhood. “But the rent goes up, too. And the blade steak is $10 for three little pieces. It used to be $4.”

Twelve miles south, at a Braintree supermarket, Janice Wallace, also 74, was picking up a couple of necessities, a dozen eggs, and a gallon of milk. That’s all she can manage till mid-month, when her food stamp allocation is replenished. But she was peeking at prices in a kind of scouting mission in advance of her next visit.

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Wallace, who came to the store from a doctor’s appointment at Dana-Farber in Weymouth, where she’s being treated for lung cancer, wasn’t encouraged by what she saw.

“Whole wheat bread was $2.20 last year,” she said. “Now it’s $4. I don’t always want to buy the cheaper bread. But with the way the prices are now, I might be forced to.”

The cage-free eggs Wallace put in her cart were $4.99, compared with under $2 last year, she said. In the deli section, she lamented that the turkey slices she likes were up to $4.79 a package, a dollar more than she remembered.

“Forget red meat,” she said. “Even fish has gotten very expensive.”

Paper towel prices, she noted, have more than doubled.

Wallace had to give up her job as a saleswoman at the Nordstrom in South Shore Plaza last year because her chemotherapy was leaving her exhausted. Now she depends on her Social Security disability payments as well as the food stamps.

“I’m a very small woman, and I don’t eat a lot,” she said. “But I have to have the basics in the house.”

Food isn’t the only arena where beleaguered seniors grapple with surging prices. Social service agencies have been flooded with calls seeking help covering soaring rents and heating bills.

Rising health costs pushed the monthly premium for Medicare Part B, which covers doctor visits and tests, up $21.60 this year to $170.10 for most beneficiaries, the largest increase in five years. A big driver is medicine administered by physicians. A bill aimed at controlling drug prices — by among other things, allowing a state agency to review price hikes — is working its way through the Massachusetts Legislature.

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“We’re very aware of people struggling,” said John Drew, president of Boston Action for Community Development, who said older folks represent nearly a quarter of the 20,000 area households receiving heating assistance from his group. “The elderly we see by the thousands are living on a basic income. That puts them more at financial risk.”

Jewish Family & Children’s Service in Waltham, which serves more than 3,500 seniors, has seen a spike in requests for rental assistance.

“Rents are going way up,” said Kathy Burnes, its director of services for older adults. “People who’ve been paying rent on the open market can’t afford to stay where they are. They’re looking for subsidized housing.”

Some older folks say they’re being forced to make painful choices, cutting back on, or giving up, things they had purchased in the past, from clothing and entertainment to even some grocery items.

Milton resident Judy Jablon, 85, who worked for years at a jewelry store in Downtown Crossing, said she’s become more careful with her spending. Her late husband’s nursing home care sapped much of the couple’s savings, so she gets by mostly on Social Security.

Jablon, a Holocaust survivor who came to the United States from Poland after World War II, has stopped going to the butcher, where she used to buy kosher meat. Instead, she said, her son brings her frozen chickens to store in her freezer when he visits from Connecticut.

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“A bottle of juice is $6, so I don’t buy the juice,” she said in a resigned tone. “I can do without the juice. I can drink water.”


Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com.