The bad news is the situation will only worsen as the population grows older unless the government steps in, warns AARP, which commissioned the survey and released it Tuesday.
In many cases, disabled people can't afford the devices they need, such as wheelchairs and canes, the survey found.
"Issues of independence and control were major themes," says Mary Jo Gibson, a senior policy advisor at AARP's Public Policy Institute. "People don't want long-term care, they want long-term independence. And substantial numbers of people feel they've lost control over some specific areas."
Researchers also found that many disabled people aren't taking advantage of family, friends and community services.
"Only 50 percent were receiving regular help with daily activities," Gibson says. "About a quarter say they needed more help than they receive now with these daily activities. These folks are really reticent to ask for help."
The survey is part of AARP's Beyond 50 2003: A Report to the Nation on Independent Living and Disability. This is the third year that AARP has issued a report about issues facing seniors.
Harris Interactive, a public opinion company, surveyed 1,102 disabled people aged 50 and older last September. The survey found that:
- Slightly more than half of disabled older people manage to live independently. Forty-nine percent receive regular help with chores such as cooking, bathing and shopping. But 53 percent say their disabilities kept them from doing something they needed or wanted to do within the past month.
"They said they wanted to be able to exercise and do household chores, go out and take a walk or go fishing, the kinds of activities that many of us can take for granted," Gibson says.
- Only one in three uses any kind of community-based service. "It's not clear if services aren't available, or people just don't know about them," Gibson says. "There's an information gap. People need to have tools to help them know where to go and locate needed services."
- Disabled older Americans aren't thrilled with how their communities meet their needs. They typically gave their city or town a B-/C+ grade, with public transportation receiving especially low grades.
In its report, the AARP calls upon the country to help people insure themselves against the cost of long-term care; to make communities more accessible to the disabled; to make information about community services more "navigable"; and to adjust the health-care system so it helps enhance quality of life and the ability of people to function.