Recent Columns


How Divorce Can Affect Your Social Security Benefits


Dear Savvy Senior: Am I entitled to my former husband's Social Security benefits? I was married for 12 unpleasant years and would like to know what I may be eligible for.

– Ex-spouse


Dear Ex-spouse,
You'll be happy to know that for the most part, Social Security provides divorced spouses benefits just like they do spouses, if you meet the government's requirements. Here's how it works.

A divorced spouse can collect a Social Security retirement benefit on the work record of their ex-husband (or ex-wife) if they are at least age 62, were married for at least 10 years, are unmarried now, and are not eligible for a higher benefit based on their own work record.

In order to collect, however, your former spouse must also be at least 62 and eligible for Social Security benefits. But, he doesn't have to be receiving them in order for you to collect divorced spouse's benefits.

Even if your ex is remarried, it won't affect your right to divorcee benefits, nor will it affect your ex's retirement benefits or his current spouse's benefits.

Benefit Amount
A divorced spouse can receive up to 50 percent of their ex's full Social Security benefit, or less if they take benefits before their full-retirement age – which is 66 if you were born between 1943 and 1954. To find out your full-retirement age and see how much your benefits will be reduced by taking them early see ssa.gov/retire2/agereduction.htm.

Keep in mind though, that if you qualify for benefits based on your own work history, you'll receive the larger of the two benefits. You cannot receive benefits on both your own record, and your ex's work record too.

To find out your retirement benefits based on your own earnings history, see your Social Security statement at ssa.gov/myaccount. And to get an estimate of your divorced spouse benefit, call Social Security at 800-772-1213. You'll need you're ex's Social Security number to get it.

Getting Remarried
Since three-quarters of U.S. divorcees get married again, it's also important to understand that remarrying makes you ineligible for divorced spouse's benefits unless the later marriage ends. And, for those who have been married and divorced twice, with both marriages lasting more than 10 years, you can collect using the ex-spouse with the larger Social Security benefit.

Divorced Survivor
You also need to know that if your ex-spouse dies, and you were married for 10 or more years, you become eligible for divorced "survivor benefits," which is worth up to 100 percent of what your ex-spouse was due.

Survivor's benefits are available to divorced spouses as early as age 60 (50 if you're disabled). But, if you remarry before 60 you become ineligible unless the marriage ends. Remarrying after age 60 will not affect your eligibility.

Also note that if you are receiving divorced spouses benefits when you ex-spouse dies, you will automatically be switched over to the higher paying survivor benefit.

Switching Strategies
Being divorced also offers some switching strategies that can help boost your benefits. For divorced spouses that worked, there's an option that lets you file a "restricted" application with Social Security (at full retirement age) to collect a divorced spousal benefit, which is half of what your ex gets. Then, once you reach 70, you stop receiving the ex-spousal benefit and switch to your own benefit, which will be 32 percent higher than it would have been at your full retirement age.

Divorced widows (and widowers) have even more options. If, for example, you are currently collecting Social Security retirement benefits on your own record, and your ex-spouse dies, you can switch to survivor's benefits if the payment is larger. Or, if you're collecting survivor's benefits, you can switch to your own retirement benefits – between 62 and 70 – if it offers a larger payment.

How Seniors can Guard Against Robocall Scams


Dear Savvy Senior: Is there anything that can be done to stop the annoying robocalls my husband and I keep getting? It seems like we get two or three a day offering lower credit card interest rates, medical alert devices, home alarm systems and more. What can you recommend?

–Frustrated Seniors


Dear Frustrated,
There's been a huge spike in robocall scams in the U.S. over the past few years. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) gets more then 200,000 complaints every month about this widespread problem. Here's what you should know, along with some tips that can help you protect yourself.

Robocall Scams
Whenever you answer the phone and hear a recorded message instead of a live person, it's a robocall.

You've probably gotten robocalls about candidates running for office, or charities asking for donations. These robocalls are legal and allowed. But if the recording is a sales message and you haven't given your written permission to get calls from the company on the other end, the call is illegal. In addition to the phone calls being illegal, their pitch most likely is a scam.

Some common robocall scams that are making the rounds these days are offering lower credit card interest rates, mortgage relief, free vacations, medical alert devices or home security systems, or they falsely notify you about changes in your health benefits or bank account. But be aware that new scams are constantly evolving, and they all have only one goal in mind – to get your personal and financial information.

The reason for the spike in robocalls is technology. Fraudulent robocallers are using autodialers that can send out thousands of phone calls every minute for an incredibly low cost, and are very difficult to trace. When these kinds of calls come in, your caller ID usually displays "spoofed" (fake) numbers, or just says "unknown."

Protect Yourself
Your first step to limiting at least some unwanted calls is to make sure your phone number is registered with the National Do Not Call Registry (see donotcall.gov or call 888-382-1222). This, however, will not stop telemarketing scams or illegal robocalls.

Another tip, if you have a caller ID, is to simply not answer the phone unless you recognize the number. But if you do answer and it's a robocall, you should just hang up the phone. Don't press 1 to speak to a live operator and don't press any other number to complain about the call or get your number off the list. If you respond by pressing any number, you're signaling that the autodialer has reached a live number and will probably lead to more robocalls.

You should also consider contacting your phone provider to ask them to block the number, and whether they charge for that service. But keep in mind that telemarketers change caller ID information easily and often, so it might not be worth paying a fee to block a number that will change.

Another call blocking option you should check into is Nomorobo. This is a free new service and works only for people who have an Internet-based VoIP phone service. Anyone with phone service from Comcast and Time Warner Cable can use it too. Nomorobo uses a "simultaneous ring" service that detects and blocks robocalls on a black list of known offender numbers. It isn't 100 percent foolproof, but it is an extra layer of protection. To sign up, or see if Nomorobo works with your phone service provider, visit Nomorobo.com.

It's also important that you report illegal robocalls you receive to the FTC at ftccomplaintassistant.gov or call 888-382-1222.

Shingles Vaccine Protects Seniors and is Covered by Medicare


Dear Savvy Senior: What can you tell me about the shingles vaccine? I just turned 65 and have been thinking about getting vaccinated, but would like to know how effective it is and how it's covered by Medicare.

–Afraid of Needles


Dear Afraid,
Older adults who get the shingles vaccine can actually cut their risk of getting the painful condition in half, and those that do happen to get it are likely to have a milder case if they've been inoculated. Here's what else you should know about the shingles vaccine, along with how it's covered by Medicare.

Shingles Overview
Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a burning, blistering, often excruciating skin rash that affects about 1 million Americans each year. The same virus that causes chickenpox causes it. What happens is the chickenpox virus that most people get as kids never leaves the body. It hides in the nerve cells near the spinal cord and, for some people, emerges later in the form of shingles.

In the U.S., one out of every three people will develop shingles during their lifetime. While anyone who's had chickenpox can get shingles, it most commonly occurs in people over age 60, along with people who have weakened immune systems. But you can't catch shingles from someone else.

Early signs of the disease include pain, itching or tingling before a blistering rash appears several days later, and can last up to four weeks. The rash typically occurs on one side of the body, often as a band of blisters that extends from the middle of your back around to the breastbone. It can also appear above an eye or on the side of the face or neck.

In addition to the rash, more than one-third who get shingles go on to develop severe nerve pain that can last for months or even years.

Vaccination Coverage
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 60 and older should get a one-time shingles vaccination – called Zostavax. Even if you've already had shingles, you still need the vaccination because reoccurring cases are possible. See zostavax.com or call 877-974-4645 for more information or to locate a vaccine provider in your area.

The vaccine is also very safe. For most people the worst side effect is mild redness or arm soreness.

You also need to know that Medicare covers the shingles vaccine as one of its preventive benefits. But, unlike some other vaccines that are paid through Part B, the shingles vaccination is covered by Part D.

If you have a Part D prescription drug plan, it will pay for the vaccine itself and for your doctor or other health care provider to give you the shot. You are only responsible for paying the plan's approved copay at the time you get vaccinated, which usually runs around $60 to $80.

But, you need to make sure you follow your plan's rules in order to keep your out-of-pocket costs down.

If you're vaccinated at a drugstore, check to make certain it's in your Part D plan pharmacy network. Otherwise, the shot will cost you more than your usual copay.

If you're inoculated in a doctor's office, check to make sure the office can bill your plan or at least can work through a drugstore in your plan's network. Otherwise, you'll have to pay the entire bill upfront and then claim reimbursement from your plan.

Just to be safe, call your Part D drug plan ahead of time and ask which pharmacies and doctors in your area you can use to receive the shingles vaccine at the plan's regular copay.

How to Help Seniors Extend Their Driving Years


Dear Savvy Senior: What tips or resources can you recommend to help seniors with their driving skills? My 84-year-old mother is still a capable driver, but she has declined a little in recent years and could definitely use some help.

–Concerned Daughter


Dear Concerned,
With more and more Americans driving well into their 70s, 80s and beyond, there are lots of tips, tools and programs available today to help elderly seniors drive safer and longer. Here are several that may help.

Schedule an eye exam: Because about 90 percent of the information necessary to drive is received through our eyes, this is a good first step in ensuring your mom's driving safety. So get your mom's eyes checked every year to be sure her vision is up to par.

Check her meds: Does your mom take any medicine or combination of medicines that could impair her driving? A new resource that can help with this is Roadwise Rx, an online assessment tool at roadwiserx.com that provides personalized feedback on how the medications your mom is taking can impact her safety behind the wheel.

Evaluate her driving: A do-it-yourself driving assessment is a simple way to help your mom get a handle on her driving abilities and vulnerabilities. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has some great resources on their website to help with this. Just go to seniordriving.aaa.com, click on "Evaluate Your Driving Ability" then on "Self-Rating Tool" and have her take the Drivers 65-Plus self-rating exercise. Then, click on "Interactive Driving Evaluation" and download the AAA Roadwise Review. This is a free confidential online screening tool that will test her vision and reaction time, which are very important for safe driving.

Take a refresher course: AARP and AAA both have older driver refresher courses that can help your mom brush up her driving skills, and learn how to manage and accommodate common age-related changes in vision, hearing and reaction time. Taking a class may also earn her a discount on her auto insurance. To locate a class contact your local AAA or AARP (888-227-7669). Most courses cost under $20 and can be taken in the classroom or online.

Another good resource to look into is CarFit. This is a free assessment program that will help your mom adjust her vehicle for a better fit, making it easier and safer to drive. CarFit events are held around the country in select locations. See car-fit.org to look for one near you.

Get a professional assessment: If your mom needs some extra help, consider getting a professional assessment done by a driver rehabilitation specialist. They will evaluate her driving ability and test for things like reaction time, decision-making skills, as well as how well she and her car fit together, pinpointing trouble areas and offering solutions. This type of assessment can cost several hundred dollars. To locate a professional, contact the Association of Driver Rehabilitation Specialists (866-672-9466) or the American Occupational Therapy Association.

Make some adjustments: Recognizing vulnerabilities and adapting her driving habits to compensate for them can go a long way in helping keep your mom safe and driving longer. Some simple adjustments include not driving after dark or during rush hour traffic, avoiding major highways or other busy roads, and not driving in poor weather conditions.

It's also good to know if there are any older driver's license renewal provisions in your mom's state, which you can get by calling her nearby driver's license office or at iihs.org/laws/olderdrivers.aspx.

When to quit: If it gets to the point that your mom's driving isn't safe anymore and she needs to quit, The Hartford Financial Services Group and MIT AgeLab provides online resources and free publications like "We Need to Talk: Family Conversations with Older Drivers" that you can access at safedrivingforalifetime.com.

A Guide to Finding Affordable Dental Care


Dear Savvy Senior: I had dental insurance through my work for many years but lost it when I retired. Where can retirees find affordable dental care?

–Searching Senior


Dear Searching,
Finding affordable dental care can be challenging for seniors living on a tight budget. Most retirees lose their dental insurance after leaving the workplace, and original Medicare does not cover cleaning, fillings or dentures. While there's no one simple solution to affordable dental care there are a number of options that can help cut your costs. Here's where to look.

Dental Discounts
One way you can reduce your dental expenses is to join a dental discount network. How this works is you pay an annual membership fee – around $80 to $200 a year – in exchange for 10 to 60 percent discounts on service and treatments from participating dentists. To find a network, go to DentalPlans.com (or 888-632-5353) where you can search for plans and participating dentists by zip code, as well as get a breakdown of the discounts offered.

A free alternative to people in select locations is Brighter.com, which offers users access to a network of dentists offering up to 50 percent discounts on all services.

Medicare Advantage
If you're a Medicare beneficiary, you probably already know that original Medicare (Part A and B) and Medigap supplemental policies do not cover routine dental care. But, there are some Medicare Advantage (Part C) plans that do provide dental coverage.

See medicare.gov/find-a-plan or call 800-633-4227 to check into Advantage plans in your area that offer them. You can switch from original Medicare to a Medicare Advantage plan each year during the open enrollment period, which is between Oct. 15 and Dec. 7. Or, if you're approaching age 65, you may want to consider enrolling in an Advantage plan that covers dental.

Dental Schools
Dental school clinics offer savings opportunities too. All 65 accredited dental schools in the U.S. offer affordable care provided by dental students who are overseen by their professors. You can expect to pay about half of what a traditional dentist would charge and still receive excellent, well-supervised care.

Another option is to check with local colleges that offer dental hygiene programs. For training purposes, many programs provide teeth cleanings by their students for a fraction of what you'd pay at a dentists office.

To search for nearby dental schools or dental hygiene programs visit ada.org/267.aspx.

Veterans Benefits
If you're a veteran enrolled in the VA health care program, or a beneficiary of the Civilian Health and Medical Program (CHAMPVA), the VA is now offering a dental insurance program that gives you the option to buy dental insurance through Delta Dental and MetLife at a reduced cost.

The VA also provides free dental care to vets who have dental problems resulting from service. To learn more about these options, visit va.gov/dental or call 877-222-8387.

Low Income Options
If you're low income, there are various programs and clinics that provide dental care at a reduced rate or for free. To look for options nearby contact your state dental director (see astdd.org), or your state or local dental society (ada.org/statelocalorg.aspx).

You may also be able to get discounted or free dental care at one of the federally funded HRSA health centers around the U.S. (findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov, 877-464-4772), or at a privately funded free clinic.

Also check with the Dental Life Network (888-471-6334) which provides free dental care for low-income elderly and disabled; Remote Area Medical which offers free health, eye and dental care to people in select locations; and Indian Health Service, which provides free dental care to American Indians and Alaska Natives who are members of a federally recognized Indian tribe.

Also see toothwisdom.org, a website created by Oral Health America that will help you locate low-cost dental care, or call them at 312-836-9900.

How to Keep Up With Your Medications


Dear Savvy Senior: Can you recommend some simple devices that can help seniors keep up with their medications? My mother is supposed to take several different medications at different times of the day but frequently forgets.

– Reminding Son


Dear Reminding,
Anybody who juggles multiple medications can relate to the problem of forgetting to take a medication, or not remembering whether they already took it. This is especially true for people who take medications at varying times of the day. Here are some different product and service solutions that can help.

Medication Helpers
Getting organized and being reminded are the two keys to staying on top of a medication schedule.

To help achieve this, there are a wide variety of affordable pillboxes, medication organizers, vibrating watches, beeping pill bottles and even dispensers that talk to you that can make all the difference. To find these types of products go to epill.com (800-549-0095) where you'll find dozens to choose from.

Also check out the monthly MedCenter System, which has 31 color-coded pillboxes, each with four compartments for different times of the day, and a four-alarm clock for reminders.

If, however, your mother needs an even more thorough medication management system you have several good options here too.

One of the better deals is MedMinder's Automated Pill Dispenser, which is a computerized pillbox that beeps and flashes when it's time for your mom to take her medication, and will call her if she forgets. It will even alert her if she takes the wrong pills. This device can also be set up to call, email or text family members and caregivers letting you know if she misses a dose, takes the wrong medication or misses a refill. Available at medminder.com, or call 888-633-6463, the MedMinder rents for $40 to $60 per month.

Another top medication dispensing system to consider is the Philips Medication Dispensing Service (888-632-3261). This countertop device will dispense her medicine on schedule, provide reminders and will notify caregivers if her pills aren't taken. Monthly rental and monitoring fees for the Philips service start at $49 per month with a one-time $99 installation fee.

Reminding Services
Another simple solution that can help your mother stick to her medication schedule is to use a medication reminding service. These are services that will actually call, email or text your mother reminders of when it's time to take her medicine and when it's time to refill her prescriptions. Some even offer extra reminders like doctor and dentist appointments, wake-up calls and more.

Companies that offer such services are mymedschedule.com, which provides free medication reminders via text message or email. Their website can also help you make easy-to-read medication schedules that you can print out for your loved one to follow.

If, however, your mom doesn't receive texts or use a computer, OnTimeRx (866-944-8966) or Snoozester may be the answer. With starting prices ranging between $4 and $10 per month, these services will call your mom on her home or cell phone (they can send text messages and emails too) for all types of reminders including daily medications, monthly refills, doctor appointments, wake-up calls and other events.

Or, if you're looking for extra help, Care Call Reassurance (602-265-5968 ext. 7) may be a better fit. In addition to the call reminders to your mom's phone, this service can be set up to contact a family member or designated caregiver if she fails to answer or acknowledge the call. This service runs between $15 and $20 per month.

Paying for Nursing Home Care with Medicaid


Dear Savvy Senior: What are the eligibility requirements to get Medicaid coverage for nursing home care?

–Looking Ahead


Dear Looking,
The rules and requirements for Medicaid eligibility for nursing home care are somewhat complicated and will vary according to the state you live in. With that said, here's a general, simplified rundown of what it takes to qualify, along with some resources you can turn to for help.

Medicaid Rules
Medicaid, the federal and state joint program that covers health care for the poor, is also the largest single payer of America's nursing home bills for seniors who don't have the resources to pay for their own care.

Most people who enter nursing homes don't qualify for Medicaid at first, but pay for care either through long-term care insurance or out-of-pocket until they deplete their savings and become eligible for Medicaid.

To qualify for Medicaid, your income and assets will need to be under a certain level that's determined by your state. Most states require that a person have no more than about $2,000 in countable assets that include cash, savings, investments or other financial resources that can be turned into cash.

Assets that aren't counted for eligibility include your home if it's valued under $543,000 (this limit is higher – up to $814,000 – in some states), your personal possessions and household goods, one vehicle, prepaid funeral plans and a small amount of life insurance.

But be aware that while your home is not considered a countable asset to determine your eligibility, if you can't return to your home, Medicaid can go after the proceeds of your house to help reimburse your nursing home costs, unless your spouse or other dependent relative lives there. (There are some other exceptions to this rule.)

After qualifying, all sources of your income such as Social Security and pension checks must be turned over to Medicaid to pay for your care, except for a small personal needs allowance – usually between $30 and $90.

You also need to be aware that you can't give away your assets to qualify for Medicaid faster. Medicaid officials will look at your financial records going back five years to root out suspicious asset transfers. If they find one, your Medicaid coverage will be delayed a certain length of time, according to a formula that divides the transfer amount by the average monthly cost of nursing home care in your state.

So if, for example, you live in a state where the average monthly nursing home cost is $5,000 and you gave away cash or other assets worth $100,000, you would be ineligible for benefits for 20 months ($100,000 divided by $5,000 = 20).

Spousal Protection
Medicaid also has special rules for married couples when one spouse enters a nursing home and the other spouse remains at home. In these cases, the healthy spouse can keep one half of the couple's assets up to $117,240 (this amount varies by state), the family home, all the furniture and household goods and one automobile. The healthy spouse is also entitled to keep a portion of the couple's monthly income – between $1,938 and $2,931. Any income above that goes toward the cost of the nursing home recipient's care.

What about Medicare?
Medicare, the federal health insurance program for seniors 65 and older and some younger people with disabilities, does not pay for long-term care. It only helps pay up to 100 days of "rehabilitative" nursing home care, which must occur after a hospital stay.

Get Help
Again, Medicaid rules are complicated and vary by state, so contact the local Medicaid office (call 800-633-4227 for contact information) for eligibility details.

You can also get help from your State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP), which provides free counseling on all Medicare and Medicaid issues. To find a local SHIP counselor visit shiptalk.org, or call 800-677-1116.
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