Could you choose between the basics — between food and medicine, food and utilities, or food and transportation? These are impossible choices, yet more than 1 in 11 Americans 65 or older struggle with hunger, and are forced to make these decisions every day.

To mark the last day of Older Americans Month, we repeat an ongoing call for advocacy and change: we need to increase seniors’ access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and to the full SNAP benefit amounts to which they are entitled.

In fiscal year 2013 — the most recent year with published data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture — more than 3.6 million older Americans participated in SNAP, but nearly 5.2 million other eligible seniors did not. Moreover, even those seniors who did participate often missed out on the full benefit allotments for which they were qualified. SNAP gaps in participation and benefit amounts are exacerbating senior hunger in America.

There are many possible reasons for the senior SNAP gaps. On the participation gap side, seniors may not know that they are eligible for SNAP, feel stigma about receiving government benefits, or face mobility and transportation barriers to applying or recertifying in person. On the benefit amounts gap side, most seniors are failing to claim medical expenses, as a deduction from income that would result in higher monthly SNAP benefit allotments. Often, seniors do not know about the excess medical deduction opportunity, or they cannot deal with the paperwork verification burdens.

States can narrow the senior SNAP gaps through policy options and waivers available now for:

  • Streamlining SNAP application forms and procedures to make it easier for seniors to get and stay connected to SNAP;
  • Establishing standardized excess medical deductions for seniors to overcome onerous verification burdens; and
  • Using SNAP outreach messages and one-on-one assisters to overcome myths and help seniors navigate the SNAP application and deductions claiming process.

Tackling senior SNAP gaps makes good economic sense. We know that seniors who eat more nutritiously live in better health, which leads to a decreased amount of dollars spent on Medicare. Another fiscal reward is that every $5 in new SNAP benefits generates $9 in total economic activity.

Conversely, failing to close senior SNAP gaps puts seniors’ health and community vitality at risk. Food-insecure seniors are more than twice as likely to report fair or poor health status. Hunger increases disability, decreases resistance to infection, and extends hospital stays. Often, medications must be taken with food in order to be effective; however, low-income seniors frequently skip meals to afford medication. The result is continued hunger and illness.

Closing senior SNAP gaps would make a remarkable difference for large numbers of households with limited resources in every state, and it would give seniors the boost they need for leading healthier lives. Advocate so that your state uses the policy tools available now to tackle the senior SNAP gaps.

To learn more, check out FRAC and AARP Foundation’s joint toolkit. It offers practical tips and examples on how communities can address food insecurity and increase senior SNAP participation.