As a mission of personal interest I have been trying to track down the origin or popularization moment of the meme of elderly women being reduced to eating catfood to survive, and while I haven't found it, I think it is worth saying that prior to Social Security, catfood would have been an improvement for many. From Time magazine's eulogy to Dr. Francis Townsend who died in 1960:
Like so many oddball Utopias, the Townsend Plan began in Southern California.*Because of fragile health, Francis Townsend had given up a horse-and-buggy practice in South Dakota's Black Hills and headed for Long Beach with his wife (his former nurse) at age 50. One morning in the bleak year of 1934, when he was down to his last $500, he happened to see three aged crones pawing through a garbage pail in search of food. The sight outraged Townsend's sensibilities, and he began to curse in such a loud voice that his wife begged him to be quiet. But Francis Townsend would not be hushed: within a month his plan was written, and before a year had passed, the wrathful Savonarola of the senescent was heard across the U.S.
Townsend led a crusade to secure generous middle-class worthy pensions for all that is credited for influencing the shape and growing generosity of Social Security (for example though passed in 1935, it was not supposed to pay pension benefits until 1942, but this was sped up to 1940 in 1939 partly due to the continuing popularity of the "Townsend plan").
I bring this up because there is a refrain from some quarters that calling the deficit commission the "Catfood Commission" is so very unfair and mean and unserious. The critics are right, it is inaccurate; we should be calling it the "Garbage Commission."
(BTW, if anyone knows or thinks they know the origin of the catfood thing, drop me a line or say so in comments. I'm well aware Digby gets the credit for the current popularity of the term, but I'm trying to dig up the place or time the underlying problem of extreme elder privation became mainstream.)