Recent Columns


Deciding What to Do in Retirement

Dear Savvy Senior: I just turned 62 and am financially prepared for retirement, but I’m less certain about how to spend my time after leaving work. Can you recommend some resources or tools that can help me with this?

--Feeling Lost

Dear Lost: This is a great question! Many people, when asked what they want to do when they retire, will say they want a mix of travel, play and meaningful work. Specifics, however, tend to be few and far between. But planning how to fill your time in retirement is just as important as the financial planning aspect. Here are some resources that can help.

Online Tools
A good starting point to figuring out what you want to do in retirement is at LifeReimagined.aarp.org. This is an AARP website (you don’t have to be a member to use it) that can help you rediscover what truly matters to you and focus on what you really want to do. It offers a variety of free online exercises and programs that will hopefully spark some ideas and give you inspiration.

Encore.org is another good resource that helps people who are seeking work that matters in the second half of life. Click on “Resources” on the menu bar and download their free Encore Guide, and consider purchasing a copy of their “Encore Career Handbook” (available at Amazon.com or BN.com for $10.50) by Marci Alboher, which is excellent.

Also check out the free E-book called “The Age for Change,” which can help answer the question: “What now?” You can download this at ComingOfAge.org.

And, if you’ve never taken a personality test before, this too can be a good tool to help you figure out what type of activities or work you’d like to do. A good option for this is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment, which you can take online at MBTIcomplete.com for $50.

Personalized Guidance
If you want personalized help, you can also get one-on-one guidance from a retirement or life planning coach. Some resources that can help you here include LifePlanningForYou.com, which has a free exercise called EVOKE to help identify a path that might suit you best in later life, and provides a directory to registered life planners to help guide you.

Also see: RetirementOptions.com, which will connect you with a retirement coach who will give you an assessment to help reveal your attitudes and opinions about work, family life, relationships, leisure time and more. And the LifePlanningNetwork.org, which is a group of professionals and organizations that help people navigate the second half of life. You can also find life and retirement coaching at the International Coach Federation at CoachFederation.org.

Coaching sessions typically range from $75 to $300 or more, and usually require four to six sessions to get the most out of the process.

Other Resources
If you’re primarily interested in volunteering, finding a retirement job or even starting a business when you retire, there are lots of resources that can help here too.

For volunteering, PointsOfLight.org, VolunteerMatch.org and SeniorCorps.gov and help you search for opportunities, or even create one on your own.

To look for job ideas, sites like RetirementJobs.com, Workforce50.com and RetiredBrains.com list thousands of jobs nationwide from companies that are actively seeking older workers. FlexJobs.com can help you find good work-at-home jobs. CoolWorks.com and BackDoorJobs.com are great for locating seasonal or summer jobs in great places. Or to search for freelance opportunities in a wide variety of areas, there’s Elance.com and Guru.com.

And if you’re interested in starting a new business, the U.S. Small Business Administration offers tips, tools and free online courses to entrepreneurs that are 50 and older at SBA.gov/content/50-entrepreneurs, as does the nonprofit association Score at Score.org.

The New MIND Diet May Help Prevent Alzheimer’s

Dear Savvy Senior: I’ve heard that there’s a new diet that can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. What can you tell me about this? My 80-year-old mother has Alzheimer’s and I want to do everything I can to protect myself.

--Concerned Daughter

Dear Concerned: It’s true! Research has found that a new diet plan – called the MIND diet – can have a profound impact on your brain health as you age, and can even lower your odds of getting Alzheimer’s disease.

The MIND diet takes two proven diets – the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet and the blood-pressure lowering DASH diet – and zeroes in on the foods in each that specifically affect brain health.

The MIND diet, which stands for “Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay,” was developed by Martha Clare Morris, a nutritional epidemiologist at Rush University Medical Center, through a study funded by the National Institute on Aging.

The study followed the diets of nearly 1,000 elderly adults, who filled out food questionnaires and underwent repeated neurological testing for an average of 4.5 years.

It found participants whose diets most closely followed the MIND recommendations had brains that functioned as if they were 7.5 years younger, and it lowered their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 53 percent. And even those who didn’t stick to the diet perfectly but followed it moderately well reduced their risk of Alzheimer’s by 35 percent.

The MIND Menu
The MIND diet has 15 dietary components. The emphasis is on eating from 10 brain-healthy food groups, and limiting foods from five unhealthy groups. Here’s a rundown of the healthy foods you should work into your diet:

  • Green leafy vegetables (like spinach and salad greens): Eat at least one serving per day.
  • Other vegetables: At least one other vegetable a day.
  • Whole grains: Three or more servings a day.
  • Nuts: Five one-ounce servings a week.
  • Beans: At least three servings a week.
  • Berries: Two or more servings a week.
  • Fish: Once a week.
  • Poultry (not fried): Two times a week.
  • Olive oil: Use it as your primary cooking oil.
  • Wine: One glass a day.

And the five unhealthy food groups you should limit include:

  • Red meat: Eat fewer than four servings a week.
  • Butter and margarine: Less than a tablespoon daily.
  • Cheese: Less than one serving a week.
  • Pastries and sweets: Less than five servings a week.
  • Fried or fast food: Less than one serving a week.

Other Benefits
One of the best things about the MIND diet is that it’s easer to follow than most other diets and you don’t have to stick to it perfectly to gain the benefits, which makes it more likely you’ll follow it for a long time. And the longer you eat the MIND way, the lower the risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease.

Another advantage is that the MIND diet can help you lose some weight too, if you keep your portions in check and are careful about how the food is prepared.

It’s also important to understand that even though diet plays a big role, it’s only one aspect of Alzheimer’s disease. So get regular exercise, if you smoke, quit, and learn how manage your stress to lower your risk even more.

How to Track Down Financial Assistance for Seniors

Dear Savvy Senior: Where can I go to locate financial assistance programs for seniors? I have been helping support my 70-year-old mother the past couple years and really can’t afford to do it any longer.

--Feeling Overwhelmed

Dear Overwhelmed: There are actually a wide variety of financial assistance programs and government benefits that can help seniors in need. But what’s available to your mom will depend on her income level and where she lives.

To find out what types of assistance your mom may be eligible for, just go to BenefitsCheckUp.org, a free, confidential Web tool designed for adults 55 and older and their families. It will help you locate federal, state and private benefits programs that can assist with paying for food, medications, utilities, health care, housing and other needs. This site – created by the National Council on Aging – contains more than 2,000 programs across the country.

To identify benefits, you’ll first need to fill out an online questionnaire that asks a series of questions like your mom’s date of birth, her ZIP code, expenses, income, assets, veteran status, the medications she takes and a few other factors. It takes about 15 minutes.

Once completed, you’ll get a report detailing all the programs and services she may qualify for, along with detailed information on how to apply.

Some programs can be applied for online, some have downloadable application forms that you can print and mail, fax or email in, and some require that you contact the program’s administrative office directly (they provide the necessary contact information).

If you don’t have Internet access, you can also get help in-person at any of the 47 Benefit Enrollment Centers located throughout the U.S. Call 888-268-6706 or visit NCOA.org/centerforbenefits/becs to locate a center in your area. Some centers also offer assistance over the phone.

Types of Benefits
Depending on your mom’s income level and where she lives, here are some benefits that she may be eligible for:

Food assistance: Programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can help pay for groceries. The average monthly SNAP benefit is currently around $127 per person. Other programs that may be available include the Emergency Food Assistance Program, Commodity Supplemental Food Program, and the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program.

Healthcare: Medicaid and Medicare Savings Programs can help or completely pay for out-of-pocket health care costs. And, there are special Medicaid waiver programs that provide in-home care and assistance.

Prescription drugs: There are hundreds of programs offered through pharmaceutical companies, government agencies and charitable organizations that help lower or eliminate prescription drug costs, including the federal Low Income Subsidy known as “Extra Help” that pays premiums, deductibles and prescription copayments for Medicare Part D beneficiaries.

Utility assistance: There’s the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), as well as local utility companies and charitable organizations that provide assistance in lowering home heating and cooling costs.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI): Administered by the Social Security Administration, SSI provides monthly payments to very low-income seniors, age 65 and older, as well as to those who are blind and disabled. SSI pays up to $733 per month for a single person and up to $1,100 for couples.

In addition to these programs, there are numerous other benefits they can help you locate such as HUD housing, home weatherization assistance, tax relief, veteran’s benefits, senior transportation, respite care, free legal assistance, job training and employment and debt counseling.

Incentive Trusts Can Motivate Your Heirs

Dear Savvy Senior: What can you tell me about incentive trusts? I have two adult children that are financial disasters. Before I die, I want to put some type of requirements in place that they will need to follow in order to receive their portion of my estate. Otherwise, they’ll blow it all in the first year.

--Troubled Parent

Dear Parent: If you want to influence your family members even after you’re gone, an incentive trust is definitely an option to consider. Here’s how it works, along with some tips to help you create one.

Incentive Trust?
An incentive trust is an estate-planning tool designed to help prod your heirs in a direction you desire when you’re no longer around.

With an incentive trust, some or all of your assets are passed to your trust when you die rather than directly to your heirs. Your trustee is empowered to distribute funds from the trust only if and when your beneficiaries do whatever it is you have specified in the trust.

For example, an incentive trust might encourage a beneficiary to graduate from college, enter a particular profession, get married or even have children. They could also reward beneficiaries who do charitable work, or supplement the incomes of those who choose low-paying, yet meaningful careers like teaching or social work. Or, they could penalize beneficiaries who don’t work by cutting off or decreasing distributions, or placing restrictions on heirs with addictions by requiring that payments go directly to rehab centers.

But be aware that these types of trusts can also have drawbacks. A poorly constructed incentive trust can have a high risk of unintended consequences. For example, if your trust provides a financial incentive for your children to be employed full-time, but one of them gets sick or seriously injured in a car accident and can’t work, they would be punished unfairly.

You also need to know that incentive trusts aren’t cheap. You can expect to pay an attorney $2,500 to $5,000 to draft one.

There are also legal limits on what you can do with an incentive trust. While state laws vary, incentive trusts that encourage a beneficiary to join or leave a particular religion, or leave a spouse or not marry at all, can be challenged in court and possibly struck down.

How To Make One
To create a solid incentive trust that accomplishes what you envision, tell your estate-planning attorney that you want to include precise instructions that clearly spells out your wishes, but you also want to include language granting your trustee the right to use his or her discretion and that the trustee’s decisions should be final and binding.

This allows your trustee to make common sense rulings, which will reduce or eliminate the chances of unintended and unfair consequences. It also makes it very difficult for beneficiaries to successfully challenge the trust or trustee in court. When a trust grants final decision-making authority to its trustee, it becomes almost impossible for beneficiaries to successfully argue that this trustee is not correctly implementing the trust’s terms.

The key is to select a trustee who’s smart enough to interpret your intent and has sufficient backbone to stand up to beneficiaries when necessary. You also need to select a successor trustee too if your first choice can no longer serve. Fees paid to a trustee vary widely depending on the state’s fee schedules, the size and complexity of the trust, and conditions laid out in the trust.

How to Prevent Falls at Home

Dear Savvy Senior: My 79-year-old mother, who lives alone, has fallen several times over the past year. Are there any extra precautions we should take that can help prevent this?

--Worried Daughter

Dear Worried: Falls are a big concern for many elderly seniors and their families. Each year, 1-in-3 older Americans fall, making it the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries for those age 65 and older. But many falls can be prevented. Depending on what’s causing your mom to fall, here are some different tips that can help protect her.

Encourage exercise: Weak leg muscles and poor balance are two of the biggest risk factors that cause seniors to fall. Tai chi, walking, water aerobics and strength training are all good for improving balance and strength, as are a number of simple balance exercises that she can do anytime like standing on one foot for 30 seconds then switching to the other foot, and walking heel-to-toe across the room.

For additional balance and leg strengthening exercises the National Institute on Aging offers free exercise guides and a DVD that you can order at Go4Life.nia.nih.gov.

Review her medications: Does your mom take any medicine, or combination of medicines, that make her dizzy, sleepy or lightheaded? If so, gather up all the drugs she takes – prescriptions and over-the-counter – and take them to her doctor or pharmacist for a drug review and adjustment.

Get her vision checked: Poor vision can be another contributor to falls, so get your mom’s eyes checked every year. She may be wearing the wrong glasses or have developed a condition such as glaucoma or cataracts that make it harder to see obstacles on the floor.

Modify her home: There are also a number of simple household modifications you can do to make your mom’s living area safer. Start by arranging or moving the furniture so there are clear pathways to walk through, and by picking up items on the floor that could cause her to trip like newspapers, shoes, clothes, electrical or phone cords.

If she has throw rugs, remove them or use double-sided tape to secure them.

In the bathroom buy some non-skid rugs for the floors and a rubber suction-grip mat or adhesive non-skid tape for the floor of the tub or shower, and have a carpenter install grab bars in and around the tub/shower for support.

Also, make sure the lighting throughout the house is good, purchase some inexpensive plug-in nightlights for the bathrooms and hallways, and if she has stairs, put handrails on both sides.

For more tips, call the Eldercare Locater at 800-677-1116 and order a free copy of their “Preventing Falls at Home” brochure. Or, get an occupational therapist to come in and assess your mom’s home for fall risks. Medicare will pay for this service if prescribed by a doctor.

Choose safe footwear: Your mom should be aware that going barefoot or wearing slippers or socks at home can also cause falls, as can wearing backless shoes, high heels, and shoes with smooth leather soles. The safest option are rubber-soled, low-heeled shoes.

Purchase some helpful aids: If your mom needs some help, talk to her doctor or a physical therapist about getting her fit for a cane or walker.

Some other helpful aids include a reacher-grabber tool that lets your mom retrieve lightweight items from high shelves, and pick up objects off the floor so she won’t have to bend over. And a cordless phone that she could carry around from room to room, so when the phone rings she doesn’t have to rush to answer it, therefore averting a fall.

It’s also important to realize that even with all these preventative measures, not all falls can be prevented. To help ensure your mom’s safety, and provide you some peace of mind, consider getting her a medical alert device.

This is a wearable pendent button – usually in the form of a necklace pendent, wristband or belt clip – so if she were to fall or need assistance, at the press of a button, she could call and talk to a trained operator who would find out what’s wrong, and notify you, a neighbor, friend or emergency services as needed.

Who’s Eligible for Social Security Survivor Benefits?

Dear Savvy Senior: Who all is eligible for Social Security survivor benefits? My ex-husband died last year at the age of 59, and I would like to find out if me, or my two kids – ages 13 and 16 – that we had together are eligible for anything?

--Divorced Widow

Dear Divorced: If your ex-husband worked and paid Social Security taxes, both you and your kids may very well be eligible for survivor benefits, but you need to act quickly because benefits are generally retroactive only up to six months. Here’s what you should know.

Under Social Security law, when a person who has worked and paid Social Security taxes dies, certain members of that person’s family may be eligible for survivor benefits including spouses, former spouses and dependents. Here’s a breakdown of who may be eligible.

Widow(er)’s and divorced widow(er)’s: Surviving spouses are eligible to collect a monthly survivor benefit as early as age 60 (50 if disabled). Divorced surviving spouses are also eligible at this same age, if you were married at least 10 years and did not remarry before age 60 (50 if disabled), unless the marriage ends.

How much you’ll receive will depend on how much money (earnings that were subject to Social Security taxes) your spouse or ex-spouse made over their lifetime, and the age in which you apply for survivors benefits.

If you wait until your full retirement age (which is 66 for people born in 1945-1956 and will gradually increase to age 67 for people born in 1962 or later), you’ll receive 100 of your deceased spouses or ex-spouses benefit amount. But if you apply between age 60 and your full retirement age, your benefit will be somewhere between 71.5 – 99 percent of their benefit.

To find out what percentage you can get under full retirement age visit ssa.gov/survivorplan/survivorchartred.htm.

There is, however, one exception. Surviving spouses and ex-spouses that are caring for a child (or children) of the deceased worker, and they are under age 16 or disabled, are eligible to receive 75 percent of the worker’s benefit amount at any age.

Unmarried children: Surviving unmarried children under age 18, or up to age 19 if they’re still attending high school, are eligible for survivor benefits too. Benefits can also be paid to children at any age if they were disabled before age 22 and remain disabled. Both biological and adoptive children are eligible, as well as kids born out of wedlock. Dependent stepchildren and grandchildren may also qualify. Children’s benefits are 75 percent of the workers benefit.

Dependent parents: Benefits can also be paid to dependent parent(s) who are age 62 and older. For parents to qualify as dependents, the deceased worker would have had to provide at least one-half of the parent’s financial support.

But be aware that Social Security has limits on how much a family can receive in monthly survivors benefits – usually 150 to 180 percent of the workers benefit.

You also need to know that in addition to survivor benefits, surviving spouses or children are also eligible to receive a one-time death benefit of $255.

Maximizing Strategies
Social Security also provides surviving spouses and ex-spouses some nice strategies that can help boost your benefits. For example, you could take a reduced survivor benefit at age 60, and could switch to your own retirement benefit based on your earnings – between 62 and 70 – if it offers a higher payment.

Or, if you’re already receiving retirement benefits on your work record, you could switch to survivors benefits if it offers a higher payment. You cannot, however, receive both benefits.

You also need to know that if you collect a survivor benefit while working, and are under full retirement age, your benefits may be reduced depending on your earnings.

For more information, visit ssa.gov/survivorplan or call 800-772-1213.

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