By Paula Span • Posted: The New York Times, The New Old Age Blog, March 28, 2014

When Telma Lopez could earn a modest living cleaning houses, she got along without food stamps. But now that she’s 64, suffers from chronic back pain and relies on Social Security disability benefits, “everything is too much money at the supermarket,” she told me.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as the federal food stamp program is now known, provides her with $189 a month, the maximum benefit for a single-person household.

Bernice Warren applied for food stamps in 2010. “My money was short and I had bills to pay, and they really helped out,” recalled Ms. Warren, 82. Her benefit — $121 this month – doesn’t allow for much meat, so she buys canned tuna and, when it’s on sale, chicken. “I make it last,” she said.

Diane Gonzalez, who directs a counseling  program at the Child Center of New York that helped both women apply for and receive benefits, feels  frustrated nonetheless. She knows that other older adults in her Queens neighborhood, unaware of or  misinformed about SNAP, are stretching meals or doing without.

Why do so few older people take advantage of  SNAP? Over all, nearly 80 percent of people eligible  for food stamps in 2011 were using them, according  to an analysis by Mathematica Policy Research. But  among those over 60, the participation rate was about  half that, 39 percent. That means more than 5.2 million  older people could be eating better.

“Some are too proud about taking ‘handouts’ —  that’s the mindset,” Ms. Gonzalez said she had found.  It sometimes requires multiple conversations to get  her clients past the stigma of dependence. (It may  help that SNAP now uses a reloadable plastic card  recipients can swipe like a debit or credit card, instead  of the coupons.)

In other cases, “the elderly feel that others, like  young children, are more needy,” said Jackie Kauff, a  senior researcher at Mathematica.  But it’s also true that despite the government’s steps to simplify the process, applying for food stamps  can still seem daunting. “It’s very complicated,”  Ms. Kauff said. “Lots of seniors find it burdensome.”

Hence the push to enlist community organizations  to help — like Ms. Gonzalez’s program, Single Stop, where a senior’s application for food stamps can be  completed in 20 minutes. Families can step in here,  too, especially to apply online for older adults who  lack computer skills.

For SNAP purposes, seniors are aged 60 or older.  They have to report, and document, their net income  (after deducting many out-of-pocket medical costs and certain expenses for shelter) and assets (excluding  a home, retirement accounts and, in most states, a vehicle). As long as those assets don’t top $3,250,  applicants at the federal poverty level ($958 in net  monthly income for someone living alone, or $1,293  for a two-person household) will qualify for help.

Because household size figures into the  calculation, people who live alone or with a spouse  may get lower benefits than families….The average  benefit for someone over age 60 who lives alone is $119 a month, and $176 for a two-person household.

We can argue whether those are adequate amounts for even careful shoppers trying to feed  themselves. We can debate whether Congress should  have reduced the benefit in November to help balance  the federal budget. Ms. Lopez, whose monthly food  stamp allotment fell to $189, from $200, said she ran  out of food by the fourth week of the month and had  to go to a food pantry for rice and milk.

But we can probably agree that for economically  marginal seniors, SNAP’s average monthly benefit  is too much to walk away from. The Agriculture  Department, which oversees SNAP, explains food  stamp eligibility and benefits on its website. You can  find numbers to call for information in each state here.  And the National Council on Aging’s Benefits CheckUp can help you determine whether a family member qualifies not only for food stamps but also for other  forms of state and federal aid.

From The New York Times, March 28, 2014 ©2014 The New York Times. All rights reserved. Used by permission  and protected by the Copyright Laws of the United States. The  printing, copying, redistribution, or retransmission of this content without express written permission is prohibited.