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UF/IFAS study: Distressed older adults more likely to accept financial help

GAINESVILLE – Emotionally unstable elderly people tend to accept financial assistance more readily than their more stable peers, a new University of Florida study shows.

Martie Gillen, an assistant professor in family, youth and community sciences at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, studied how personality traits play a role in whether elderly people are willing to accept financial assistance from others and in what form.

Gillen said the study has implications for public assistance programs, including food stamps. It may be that such programs should be better marketed to older adults, she said.

“Many elderly people are eligible for food stamps, but will not sign up for the benefits,” she said.

The study drew from data gathered by University of Michigan researchers from 2006-2008.  The Health and Retirement Study is a national look at the economic and health status of more than 20,000 older Americans .

The more recent study, co-authored by Hyungsoo Kim, a family sciences professor at the University of Kentucky, was published online this summer in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues.

Gillen and Kim examined financial habits as they related to five personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

For her study, Gillen used the American Psychological Association’s definition of neuroticism:  a chronic level of emotional instability and proneness to psychological distress.

Unlike neurotic or conscientious older adults, those deemed ‘agreeable’ were more likely to accept financial help from relatives, the study found. Those adults may have a better support network in retirement, Gillen said.

Gillen also examined three types of financial assistance: credit card debt and home equity loans; family (for example, loans from family members or transfers of funds) and public aid (for example, food stamps and Medicaid).

One finding she deemed noteworthy was that neurotic older adults are more likely to use credit cards.

Older adults with relatively higher levels of neuroticism were more likely to have personal debt in later years, Gillen said.

About 15 percent of older parents receive money from family, prior research shows.

In Gillen’s study, she outlines several trends in how older adults manage their money:

  • Older adults who live on fixed incomes may rely on credit cards to pay for medical treatment, gas, food and other necessities.
  • They report the highest credit card debt due to medical expenses. About 17 percent of older adults report lacking money for medical bills.
  • Older homeowners may tap equity in their homes as a financial buffer to cope with unexpected health care or household expenses.

“It appears that some older Americans may see their homes not just as secure places to live, but also as collateral for a loan and a retirement source,” Gillen wrote.

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Writer: Brad Buck, (352) 392-2411, ext. 287, bradbuck@ufl.edu

Source: Martie Gillen, (352) 392-0404, mgillen@ufl.edu