The author. (Photo courtesy of Age Options)

I was never someone who was afraid to work.

I got my first job at 18, running a cash register at a department store in Chicago. Back then, we had to tally all the sales by hand, rechecking each night to see how much we’d sold.

Since then, I’ve worked for the IRS, at a local hospital and at a Post Office. For several years, I drove a school bus in Crestwood, Ill. No matter what I did though, I couldn’t quite manage to make ends meet and save for retirement. Sure, I saved what I could. But most of my income went toward buying a house and keeping food on my table.

So when I retired at 74, though I’d worked for 56 years, I didn’t have the income I needed to buy food. After all, seniors have lots of expenses. Though I moved into a one-bedroom apartment, my only income was $853 a month in Social Security. After paying rent ($527 per month), utilities (roughly $100 per month) and medical bills (at minimum $104.90 for Medicare Part B Premium), I was lucky to be left with about $100 for all other expenses, including food and transportation.

I had so little left over each month that I never bought clothes or went out for dinner. For a while, I even sold Avon make-up to make a little extra money. Still, I couldn’t afford a diet of healthy, nutritious meals. At the grocery store, I would skip the fresh fruit and vegetable aisle — to me, produce was a luxury. Instead I would buy bread, milk, eggs, beans, rice and chicken, just the basics when I could.

I had always worked and taken care of my bills; I’d never had to ask for help before. But when I saw the SNAP flyer from AgeOptions, my local Area Agency on Aging, I knew that I would qualify and decided to make the call. I had never heard of this program before, but I thought signing up for benefits would help me make my ends meet each month. The money I spent on food could now be spent toward other bills, such as my light bill, phone bill or even toward rent.

And I’m so glad I did. I remember the first time I went grocery shopping with my food stamps. I filled my cart with chicken, beef, eggs, milk, coffee, bacon, oatmeal, apples, bananas, orange juice, strawberries and grapes. I went home and stocked my freezer with the extra meat that I was now able to afford. That first month, I cooked a roasted chicken with dressing. I made spaghetti and meatballs. I bought fresh fish, not just canned tuna.

Eating better improved my health. I suffer from hypertension, but that’s been lowered now. I’m able to maintain a healthy weight. My skin and hair look better.

I know I’m not alone. One in six seniors faces the threat of hunger, according to the State of Senior Hunger in America. In the last 15 years, the number of seniors suffering from hunger jumped by 45 percent. Food insecurity is dangerous for everyone but for the elderly in particular. Hungry seniors are 60 percent more likely to experience depression, 53 percent more likely to report a heart attack and 52 percent more likely to develop asthma. Those who live alone are at particular risk.

Programs like SNAP can help address this problem. Right now, four million American seniors are enrolled in SNAP. That’s just 41 percent of those who are eligible. On average, the benefits provide $134 a month (or $113 a month for people living alone). Other programs, like Meals on Wheels, provide fresh, affordable food to the elderly, often delivering dishes to their homes.

We can do more. In addition to signing more seniors up for SNAP, we can make the process easier. Now I know that SNAP benefits are not just for the poor; they help everyone make ends meet.