How to Choose a Home Stair LiftDear Savvy Senior,
My wife is having an increasingly difficult time going up and down the stairs in our house. We are interested in purchasing a stair lift, but aren't sure what to get or where to look. Can you help us?
– Need a Lift
A good home stair lift is a wonderful solution for seniors with mobility issues who have trouble with steps. A stair lift will carry your wife up and down the stairs in a safe seated position, giving her easy access to the second story or basement level of your home. But with so many options available how do you choose one that best meets your needs and budget. Here are a few shopping tips along with some good companies that offer them.
Types of Lifts
There are two basic types of stair lifts that are sold today: straight and curved. The type you need will depend upon the design of your staircase.
A straight stair lift is one that travels in a straight line up a flight of stairs uninterrupted by landings, bends or curves, and costs between $3,000 and $5,000 installed. Curved lifts, however, are much more elaborate and will go around corners, bends and changes in direction. Curved lifts are also much more expensive typically running between $10,000 and $15,000 or more depending on the complexity of the installation.
Also available through certain companies are weatherproof lifts for outdoor steps, and standing stair lifts (also called perch lifts) for those who have trouble bending their knees.
You also need to know that all stair lifts mount to the stair treads, not to the wall, so they are very sturdy and can be installed in almost any home.
If your wife is a large person, you may need to get her a heavy-duty lift with a wider seat and bigger lifting capacity – all companies offer them. Or, if she's tall, find out about raising the seat height during installation.
Most stair lifts available today also have seats, armrests and footplates that fold up out of the way, and swivel seats that make getting into and out of the chair easier. They also come with standard safety features like seatbelts, breaking systems and footrest sensors, push-button or rocker-switch controls located on the armrest for easy operation, and "call send" controls which allow you to call or send the unit to the other end of the stairs. Make sure the lift you choose has all these features.
Depending on the company, you may also have the option of choosing between an electric (AC) and a battery powered (DC) stair lift. Battery powered units charge at the base station (some recharge anywhere on the track) are quieter, smoother and better than electric lifts, and will work even if there's a power failure in the home.
Where to Shop
While there are many companies that make, sell and install stair lifts, the most respected in the industry are Bruno (866-345-7537) and Stannah (800-877-8247), followed by Harmar (800-833-0478) and Sterling (866-276-5438).
Unfortunately, Medicare does not cover stair lifts, but many states offer Medicaid waivers that will pay for lifts to those that qualify, and the VA offers cash grants to veterans with disabilities for home safety improvements.
To save some money, you may want to consider purchasing a used or refurbished model. Or, if you need a stair lift for only a short period of time, consider renting one. Most companies offer these options, and many offer financing programs too.
To get started, contact some stair lift companies who will put you in touch with a dealer in your area. All dealers provide free in-home assessments and estimates, and can help you choose an appropriate lift.
How Health Insurance Marketplaces Will Help Early RetireesDear Savvy Senior,
What can you tell me about the new Obamacare health insurance exchanges that begin next year? I am interested in retiring early at age 61, but need to find some affordable health until my Medicare benefits begin at 65.
–Ready to Retire
The new health insurance exchanges – also known as Health Insurance Marketplaces – that begin in 2014 will be a welcome benefit to millions of Americans who need health insurance, especially uninsured baby boomers and pre-Medicare retirees who often have a difficult time finding affordable coverage.
How It Will Work
As part of the Affordable Care Act, starting Oct. 1 you will be able to shop and compare health insurance policies in your area, and enroll in one directly through your state's Health Insurance Marketplace website. The policies will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2014.
You'll also be happy to know that federal law dictates that Marketplace insurers cannot deny you coverage or charge you higher rates based on pre-existing health conditions, and they can't charge women more than men. But, they can charge older customers more than younger ones – up to three times more.
Every state will have a Marketplace, but each state can choose how it will operate. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia will run their own statebased Marketplace, seven states will partner with the federal government, and 26 states will offer federal Marketplaces. The differences between federal and state programs will be subtle. You will be able to access your state's Health Insurance Marketplace at healthcare.gov.
The policies available through these Marketplaces will be sold by insurance companies and will provide a package of 10 essential benefits, like emergency services, hospital care, lab services, prescription drugs, doctor visits, preventive care and rehab services.
To make shopping and comparing a little easier, the health plans will be divided into four different levels – bronze, silver, gold and platinum – each offering similar benefits but with a different cost structure. The bronze plan will have the lowest monthly premiums but have highest out-of-pocket costs, while the platinum plans will have the highest premiums but the lowest deductibles and co-payments.
The Marketplaces will also offer a toll-free hotline to help you choose a plan that meets your needs and budget. These helpers aren't associated with any particular plan, and they aren't on any type of commission, so the help they give you will be completely unbiased.
Costs and Tax-Credits
Prices will vary depending on where you live, your age and the health plan you choose. Exact cost structures for most Marketplaces will be released within the next few months.
To help make coverage affordable, sliding scale tax-credits will be available if you earn less than 400 percent of the poverty level – that's $45,960 for a single person and $62,040 for couples. These tax-credit subsidies will provide immediate savings off your monthly premiums.
To find out if you qualify, or see how much a tax-credit will reduce your monthly costs, you'll need to submit a Marketplace application in October, or when you decide enroll. In the meantime, you can calculate your potential taxcredit premium savings by using the Kaiser Family Foundation calculator at healthreform.kff.org – click on "Interactive Features" and then scroll down to "Subsidy Calculator."
For more information on the Health Insurance Marketplaces including a checklist of things you can do now to help you choose a plan, visit healthcare.gov/marketplace.
Simplified Smartphones for Boomers and SeniorsDear Savvy Senior,
Are there any smartphones specifically designed for seniors that you know of? I'm interested in getting one, but at age 69, I want to find one that's easy to see
There are actually several manufacturers who are now making simplified smartphones with features designed primarily for older users who have limited experience with modern gadgetry. Here's a rundown of what's currently and soon-to-be available.
Pantech Flex: One of the best and most affordable age-friendly smartphones on the market today is the Pantech Flex, sold through AT&T for only $1 with a two-year contract.
This Android-powered touch screen phone has a bright 4.3-inch screen, with a fast 1.5GHz dual-core processor and 8 megapixel camera. But what makes this phone ideal for seniors is its Easy Experience mode which provides a simple, clean home screen with large fonts, clearly marked icons, and quick access to the phone's most essential features – your phone, camera, messages, menu, Web, contacts, along with shortcuts to your favorite apps.
It also offers convenient features like voice dialing and voice commands, and SwiftKey technology that predict the next word you want to type to make texting faster and easier.
Individual monthly service plans for AT&T start at $30 for 200 minutes of talk time (for customers 65 and older), $20 for unlimited text messaging, and $20 for 300 MB of data.
Jitterbug Touch: Offered by GreatCall Wireless – the same company that makes the Jitterbug big-button cell phone – the Touch is actually a Kyocera Milano smartphone that's been rebranded and loaded with GreatCall's simplified user interface software.
It offers a 3-inch touch screen, and a full slide-out keyboard with raised, backlit buttons that makes it easier to type messages. And when you turn the phone on, you get a simple menu list with large fonts that let you access often-used features like the phone, camera, messages and pictures, along with your contacts and apps.
This Android phone also offers voice dialing, a 3.2 megapixel camera, and optional features like medication reminders, 5Star personal security service, a live nurse service to answer your health questions, and more.
Available at greatcall.com or 800-733-6632, the Touch sells for $149 with a onetime $35 activation fee, no-contract, and calling plans that cost $15 per month for 50 minutes, up to $80 per month for unlimited minutes, text messages, operator assistance, and voicemail. And their data plans run between $2.50 per month for 10 MB up to $25/month for 500 MB.
Samsung Galaxy Note II: If a bigger screen is the most desired feature, the Samsung Galaxy Note II has a huge 5.5-inch touch screen display and can be used with a stylus, which makes it easy to see and maneuver. It also offers an Easy mode feature which simplifies the home screen providing access only to key functions like the phone, messaging, Internet, contacts and your favorite apps.
Available through AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular for $300 to $370 with a two-year contract, the monthly service plans for talk, text and data start at around $80.
Doro PhoneEasy 740: If you don't mind waiting, the Doro PhoneEasy 740 is another excellent option, but it won't be available in the U.S. until later this year.
This Android slider phone has a 3.2-inch touch screen and a numerical slide-out keypad with raised buttons for easy operation. It also offers a large-text, clearly labeled menu to frequently used features like the phone, email, messages, Internet, photos, games and apps.
Expected to cost around $99, other age-friendly features include a 5 megapixel camera which can double as a magnifying glass, and an emergency call button that will dial and text five preprogrammed numbers when pressed.
How to Choose a Medigap Supplemental PolicyDear Savvy Senior,
I'll be 65 in a few months – Medicare enrollment age – and am thinking about getting a Medicare supplemental policy to help cover things outside of Medicare. Can you give me some advice on choosing a plan?
If you're planning to choose original Medicare for your health coverage, getting a supplemental policy too (also known as Medigap insurance) is a good idea if you can afford it, because it will help pay for things that aren't covered by Medicare like copayments, coinsurance and deductibles. Here are some tips and tools to help you choose an appropriate plan for you.
Medigap policies, which are sold by private health insurers, come in 10 standardized benefit packages labeled as the letters A, B, C, D, F, G, K, L, M and Plan F is the most popular, followed by plan C because they provide the most comprehensive coverage. Plans M and N, the two newest options, are cost sharing plans that have cheaper premiums which make them appealing to healthier retirees who don't use as much health care.
If, however, you live in Massachusetts, Minnesota or Wisconsin you have different standardized Medigap plans that you can buy. For more information on the different types of plans, call Medicare at 800-633-4227 and ask them to mail you a free copy of the "Choosing a Medigap Policy" guide (publication 02110), or see medicare.gov/pubs/pdf/02110.pdf.
How to Choose
To choose a policy, consider your health status and family medical history. The differences among plans can be small and rather confusing so you'll need to do some homework to pick a plan that works best for you.
To help you choose, use the Medigap online search tool at medicare.gov, and click on "Supplements & Other Insurance" at the top of the page, then on "How to Compare Medigap Policies." This tool will breakdown what each plan covers along with premium cost ranges, and lists the companies that offer them in your area.
Since all Medigap policies with the same letter must cover the exact same benefits, you should shop for the cheapest policy.
You'll get the best price if you sign up within six months after enrolling in Medicare Part B. During this open-enrollment period, an insurer cannot refuse to sell you a policy or charge you more because of your health.
You also need to be aware of the three pricing methods which will affect your costs. Medigap policies are usually sold as either "attained-age" policies which are premiums that start low but increase as you get older. "Issue-age" policies that increase prices due to inflation, not age. These policies may start out a little more expensive than attained-age policies but generally have few rate increases over time. And "community-rate" policies, where everyone in an area is charged the same premium regardless of age. Issue-age and community-rated policies will usually save you money in the long-run.
No Drug Coverage
You also need to know that Medigap policies do not cover prescription drugs, so if you don't have drug coverage, you need to consider buying a separate Medicare Part D drug plan too. You can compare plans and cost at medicare.gov/find-a-plan. Also note that Medigap plans do not cover vision or dental care, hearing aids or long-term care, either.
Instead of getting original Medicare, plus a Medigap policy and a separate Part D drug plan, you could sign up for a Medicare Advantage plan that provides all-in-one coverage. These plans, which are sold by insurance companies, are generally available through HMOs and PPOs. To find and compare Advantage plans visit medicare.gov/find-a-plan.
If you need help, contact your State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP), which provides free Medicare counseling. See shiptalk.org, or call 800-677-1116 to locate a counselor in your area.
Assistive Technologies That Help Elderly Seniors Stay at HomeDear Savvy Senior,
What types of new home technologies can you recommend to help me keep tabs on my elderly mother? She lives alone, about an hour's drive from me, and I worry about her safety.
Helping an aging parent remain independent and living in their own home has become a little easier in recent years, thanks to a host of new and improved assistive technology products. Here are some top rated options you should know about.
If you're worrying about your mom falling and needing help, one of the most frequently used products over the years for seniors living alone is a medical alert device – also known as a personal emergency response system, or PERS.
These devices provide a wearable "SOS" button – typically in the form of a necklace pendent or bracelet – and a base station that connects to the home At the press of a button, your mom could call and talk to a trained operator through the system's base station receiver which works like a powerful speaker phone. The operator will find out what's wrong, and will notify family members, a neighbor, friend or emergency services as needed.
If you're interested in this, there are dozens of services to choose from including the Philips Lifeline (800-380-3111) which is the most widely used medical alert service in the U.S. and costs around $35 per month. Phillips also offers a new Auto Alert option (for $48 per month) that has fall detection sensors in the SOS button that can automatically summon help without your mom ever having to press a button. This is helpful because many seniors after a fall become confused or disoriented and forget to press the button.
If you're interested in a more budget-friendly option, consider an unmonitored medical alert, like the new VTech CareLine Home Safety Telephone System for $120, which doesn't require professional monitoring services, therefore has no monthly monitoring fees.
Or, to deal with falls or health emergencies that happen outside the home, there are mobile-alert GPS products now available that work anywhere. To find these, see GreatCall.com, MobileHelpNow.com and PhilipsLifelineGoSafe.com.
Another more sophisticated technology for keeping tabs on your mom is with a home monitoring system. These systems will let you know whether she is waking up and going to bed on time, eating properly, showering and taking her medicine. They work through small wireless sensors (not cameras) placed in key locations throughout the home. The sensors will track her movements, learning her daily activity patterns and routines, and will notify you or other family members via text message, email or phone if something out of the ordinary is happening. For instance, if she went to the bathroom and didn't leave it could indicate a fall or other emergency.
You can also check up on her patterns anytime you want through the system's password-protected website. And for additional protection, most services offer SOS call buttons as well that can be placed around the house, or worn. Some good companies that offer these services are BeClose (866-574-1784), which runs $399 or $499 for the sensors, plus a $69 monthly service fee if paid a year in advance. And GrandCare Systems (262-338-6147), which adds a fantastic social component – through a senior-friendly computer – to go along with the activity monitoring. GrandCare leases for $150 to $300 per month.
If you want to make sure your mom is keeping up with her medications, there are medication management devices you can now rent, that will dispense her medicine on schedule, provide constant reminders, and even notify you if her medicine is not taken. Two products that offer this are MedMinder (888-633-6463), which rents for $40 per month, and the Philips Medication Dispensing Service (888-632-3261) that costs $75/month.
Do You Need To File a Tax Return This Year?Dear Savvy Senior,
My income dropped way off when I retired early last year, and I'm wondering if I fall into the so called "47 percent" of Americans who won't have to pay and income taxes this year. What can you tell me?
– Curious Senior
The percentage of seniors, age 65 and older, who won't have to pay income taxes this year, is actually around 56 percent according the Tax Policy Center. Here's a breakdown of the 2012 filing requirements along with a few other tax tips to help you determine if you need to file.
Whether or not you'll need to file a federal income tax return this year will depend on your filing status, your age, and your gross income. If your gross income falls below the IRS filing limits, you probably won't have to file. Gross income includes all the income you receive that is not exempt from tax, not including Social Security benefits, unless you are married and filing separately. You probably don't have to file this year if:
Be aware that there are some special financial situations that require you to file a tax return, even if your gross income falls below the IRS filing requirement. For example, if you had net earnings from self-employment in 2012 of $400 or more, or if you owe any special taxes to the IRS such as alternative minimum tax or IRA tax penalties, you'll probably need to file.
To figure this out, the IRS offers a resource on their website called "Do I Need to File a Tax Return?" that asks a series of questions that will help you determine if you're required to file, or if you should file because you're due a refund. You can also get help over the phone by calling the IRS helpline at 800-829-1040.
Check Your State
Even if you're not required to file a federal tax return this year, it doesn't necessarily mean you're also excused from filing state income taxes. Check on that with your state tax agency before concluding you're entirely in the clear. For links to state and local tax agencies see taxadmin.org.
If you do need to file a tax return this year, you can get help through the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (or TCE) program. Sponsored by the IRS, TEC provides free tax preparation and counseling to middle and low income taxpayers, age 60 and older. Call 800-906-9887 to locate a service near you.
Also check with AARP, a participant in the TCE program that provides free tax preparation at nearly 6,000 sites nationwide. To locate an AARP Tax-Aide site call 888-227-7669 or visit aarp.org.
How to Find and Hire a Good Home Care WorkerDear Savvy Senior,
What's the best way to find a good in-home caregiver for my elderly mother?
–Looking for Care
Finding a good in-home caregiver that's dependable, likeable, trustworthy and affordable can be challenging, to say the least. Here are some tips and resources that can help.
Know Your Needs
Before you start the task of looking for a caregiver, your first step is to determine the level of care your mom needs (see NCLneedsassessment.org for a checklist). If, for example, she only needs help with activities of daily living like preparing meals, doing laundry, bathing or dressing, a "homemaker" or "personal care aide" will do.
But, if she needs health care services, there are "home health aides" that may do all the things a homemaker does, plus they also have training in administering medications, changing wound dressings and other medically related duties. Home health aides often work under a nurse's supervision.
Once you settle on a level of care, you then need to decide how many hours of assistance she'll need. For example, does your mom need someone to come in just a few mornings a week to help her cook, clean, run errands or perhaps bathe? Or does she need more continuous care that requires daily visits or a full-time aide?
After you determine her needs, there are two ways in which you can go about hiring someone. Either through a home health agency, or you can hire someone directly on your own.
Home Health Agencies
Hiring a certified home health agency to supply and manage your mom's care is the easiest but most expensive option of the two. Costs run anywhere from $12 up to $40 an hour depending on where you live and the qualification of the aide. This is also usually a better way to go if your mom requires a lot of in-home health care.
How it works is you pay the agency, and they handle everything including an assessment of your mom's needs, assigning appropriately trained and pre-screened staff to care for her, and finding a fill-in on days her aide cannot come.
Some of the drawbacks, however, are that you may not have much input into the selection of the caregiver, and the caregivers may change or alternate, which can cause a disruption in care and confusion.
You also need to know that while Medicare does cover some in-home health care services if it's ordered by a doctor, they don't cover homemaker services, nor will they cover personal care services, such as bathing and dressing, provided by a home health aide if that is the only care required. But, if your mom is low-income and qualifies for Medicaid, some services are covered.
To locate and compare Medicare-approved home health agencies visit medicare.gov/hhcompare, and see the "Medicare and Home Health Care" online publication that explains coverage and how to choose an agency.
Hiring an independent caregiver on your own is the other option, and it's less expensive. Costs typically range between $10 and $20 per hour. Hiring directly also gives you more control over who you hire so you can choose someone who you feel is right for your mom.
But, be aware that if you do hire someone on your own, you become the employer so there's no agency support to fall back on if a problem occurs or if the aide doesn't show up. You're also responsible for paying payroll taxes and any worker-related injuries that may happen. If you choose this option make sure you check the aide's references thoroughly, and do a criminal background check.
To find someone, ask for referrals through friends, doctor's offices or hospital discharge planners, check online job boards like craigslist.org, or try carelinx.com or carescout.com. Some states even offer registries to help you locate good caregivers. Or, for a fee, a geriatric care manager can help find someone.
Getting Social Security Help May Boost Your BenefitsDear Savvy Senior,
Are there any services that you can recommend that help pre-retirees decide when to start drawing their Social Security benefits? My wife and I are still a few years away from retiring but want to carefully weigh all our options to make sure we get the most from our benefits.
Deciding when to begin collecting your Social Security benefits could be one of the most important retirement-income decisions you'll make. The difference between a good decision and a poor one could cost you tens of thousands of dollars over your retirement, so doing your homework and weighing your options now is a very smart move.
What to Consider
As you may already know, you can claim Social Security any time from age 62 to 70, but the longer you wait, the larger your monthly check. However, there are many other factors you need to take into account to help you make a good decision, like your current financial needs, your health and family longevity, whether you plan to work in retirement, whether you have other retirement income sources, and if you're married, your spouse's situation.
You also need to understand the dizzying array of rules that can affect your Social Security benefits, and factor in the various strategies that can increase your benefits if you're married, divorced or widowed.
To help you compare all your options, there are a number of online tools and services that have sprung up in recent years that can help you make an informed decision.
To get started, your first step is to go to the Social Security Statement web page and get your personalized statement that estimates what your retirement benefits will be at age 62, full retirement age (currently 66) or when you turn 70. These estimates are based on your yearly earnings that are also listed on your report.
Once you get your estimates for both you and your wife, there are several online tools you can turn to that can crunch hundreds of calculations to compare your benefits under various scenarios and different ages to help you figure out your optimum claiming strategy.
Two free sites are Analyze Now which offers a robust decision-making tool called the "Strategic Social Security Planner," but requires Microsoft Excel to use it. And AARP's Social Security Benefits Calculator, which is a less sophisticated tool but very easy to use.
Or, if you don't mind spending a little money, there are higher-level services like Social Security Choices which provides a comprehensive customized report for only $30 to help single, married or widowed pre-retirees identify their best claiming strategy. Or Maximize My Social Security, which charges $40 for their report, and takes into account the thousands of different factors and combinations to help you maximize your benefits.
If, however, you want or need more help, there are specialized firms and financial advisors that can advise you for a fee.
One of the best is Social Security Solutions (866-762-7526), which offers several levels of service including their "Premier Plus" plan that runs multiple calculations and comparisons, recommends a best course of action in a detailed report, and gives you a one-on-one session with a Social Security specialist over the phone to discuss the report and ask questions. The fee for this service is $125.
Premier Social Security Consulting (800-518-0761) is another option that offers several consulting packages, ranging from $75 to $295.
Or, you can get help through a fee-only financial adviser who specializes in Social Security analysis and charges on an hourly basis. To find someone use the Garrett Planning Network (866-260-8400), which offers the services of 300 independent advisers nationwide. The cost for a Garrett advisor ranges between $150 and $300 per hour.
Car Shopping Tips for Older DriversDear Savvy Senior,
What resources can you recommend to seniors who are shopping for a car? My wife and I are relatively healthy 70-year-olds and are looking for a new senior-friendly vehicle, but could use some help.
For seniors who are in the market for a new or used car, the AAA (American Automobile Association) and the University of Florida's Institute for Mobility, Activity and Participation has just updated an excellent resource called "Smart Features for Older Drivers" that can help you choose a vehicle that meets your needs as you age.
While the automotive industry doesn't make vehicles specifically designed for senior citizens, they do make certain vehicles with features that can help accommodate the needs of older drivers.
With that in mind, "Smart Features for Older Drivers" addresses the age-related physical changes – like diminished vision, arthritis, and range of motion loss – that can affect a senior's driving ability and comfort behind the wheel, and outlines various vehicle features that help address those issues. Here's what they recommend.
The first priority is to identify vehicles with a proven safety record which you can research online at safercar.gov and iihs.org/ratings. Also look for vehicles that have dynamic stability control, anti-lock brakes, adjustable head restraints, and side and dual-stage/threshold airbags that adjust the deployment force based on the severity of the crash.
Your next step is to identify specific vehicle features that can help meet your physical needs. So depending on what ails you, here's what to look for.
Hip and knee problems: For comfort, a better fit, and easier entry and exit, look for vehicles that have six-way adjustable power seats that move the seat forward and backward, up and down, and the seat-back forward and backward. Also look for low door thresholds and seat heights that don't require too much bending or climbing to get into. The ideal seat height for seniors is between mid-thigh and lower buttocks when standing next to the vehicle. Leather or faux leather seats are also easier to slide in and out of than cloth seats.
Stiff upper body: If you have difficulty looking over your shoulder to back up or merge into traffic, look for vehicles with a large rear window for better visibility, wide-angle mirrors which can minimize blind spots, back-up cameras, active parallel park assistance, and blind-spot warning systems that alert you to objects in the way. Also, for comfort and fit, consider vehicles that have a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, adjustable seatbelts, and heated seats with lumbar support.
Arthritic hands: For easier use, four-door vehicles are recommended because the doors are smaller, lighter and easier to open and close than two-door models.
And to help with painful gripping and turning problems, look for keyless entry and a push-button ignition, a thicker steering wheel, power mirrors and seats, and a sliding channel gear selector.
Diminished vision: Drivers with vision loss due to cataracts, glaucoma or some other condition will find vehicles with larger instrument panels and dashboard controls with contrasting text easier to see and manipulate. And those with sensitivity to glare will benefit from extendable sun visors, auto-dimming rearview mirror and glare reducing side mirrors.
Smart Features Resource
To access the "Smart Features for Older Drivers" resource, visit SeniorDriving.AAA.com/SmartFeatures and use their online tool that lets you choose the age-friendly features you want in a vehicle, and the tool will identify the makes and models that best fit your needs.
Or, if you don't have internet access call your AAA (call 800-222-4357 to get your local number) and ask them to mail you free copy of the "Smart Features for Older Drivers" brochure. You don't have to be a AAA member to get this free publication.
How to Divvy Up Your StuffDear Savvy Senior,
What's the best, conflict-free way to divvy up my personal possessions to my kids after I'm gone? I have a lot of jewelry, art, family heirlooms and antique furniture, and five grown kids that don't always see eye-to-eye on things. Any suggestions would be appreciated.
Divvying up personal possessions among adult children or other loved ones is a task that many parents dread. Deciding who should get what without showing favoritism, hurting someone's feeling or causing a feud can be difficult, even for close-knit families who enter the process with the best of intentions. Here are some tips to consider that can help you divide your stuff with minimal conflict.
Problem Areas For starters, you need to be aware that it's usually the small, simple items of little monetary value that cause the most conflicts. This is because the value we attach to the small personal possessions is usually sentimental or emotional, and because the simple items are the things that most families fail to talk about.
Family battles can also escalate over whether things are being divided fairly by monetary value. So for items of higher value like your jewelry, antiques and art, consider getting an appraisal to assure fair distribution. To locate an appraiser, visit appraisers.org.
Ways to Divvy The best solution for passing along your personal possessions is for you to go through your house with your kids (or other heirs) either separately or all at once. Open up cabinets, drawers and closets, and go through boxes in the attic to find out which items they would like to inherit and why. They may have some emotional attachment to something you're not aware of. If more than one child wants the same thing, you will have the ultimate say.
Then you need to sit down and make a list of who gets what on paper, signed, dated and referenced in your will. You can revise it anytime you want. You may also want to consider writing an additional letter or create an audio tape, CD or DVD that further explains your intentions.
You can also specify a strategy for divvying up the rest of your property. Some fair and reasonable options include:
It's also very important that you discuss your plans in advance with your kids so they can know ahead what to expect. Or, you may even want to start distributing some of your items now, while you can still alive.
Simplified Computer Software That Can Help Seniors Get OnlineDear Savvy Senior,
Do you know of any computer software that's designed for seniors that I can download on an old computer that I have? I would like to set my grandmother up with a senior-friendly system for email and Internet access, but I don't want to spend a lot of money.
There are actually a number of companies and services today that offer simplified computer software that's designed specifically for seniors who have little or no computer experience.
These software packages can transform most Microsoft Windows personal computers (PCs) – some work with Macs and tablets too – into a much simpler computer experience that provides seniors easy access to most functions like sending and receiving email, browsing the Internet, making video calls, looking at photos, playing games and more. Here are some top options to check out.
Since it's completely free, a good place to start is at Eldy, an Italian nonprofit organization that provides simplified computer software in 25 different languages including English. Available to download at www.eldy.eu, this software works on PCs that use Windows and Linux systems, Macs and Android tablets.
Once installed, Eldy converts the computer's desktop into a simple six-button menu that has large text, color contrasts and simplified instructions (no confusing icons) that makes it easy to see, understand and operate.
The six-button menu puts seniors literally one-click-of-the-mouse away from simplified versions of email, the Web, Skype for video calls, chat groups, a simple word processing program and more.
It's also worth noting that Eldy software works on touch-screen computers too, and they also offer online tech-support.
If, however, you don't mind spending a little money, there are also a number of companies that offer software similar to Eldy, but provide a few extra enticing features. One of the best deals is offered through SeeYouLink which has a three-month free trial and charges only $4.95 per month after that.
SeeYouLink's web-based software will transform any mouse-operated or touch-screen Windows-based PC, into a simplified big-button operating system with large fonts and color contrasts. This will give your grandmother easy access to a host of functions that she can select from like email, Web browsing, video calling, brain-fitness games, movies, Facebook, a calendar that sends reminders and much more.
In addition, this service also provides a "remote access" feature that will give you and other family members the ability to access your grandmother's computer system from literally any computer anywhere in the world, so you can help her set things up, show her websites, scheduled appointments, or guide her through any other questions or problems she might have. And, when you or your grandmother needs help, SeeYouLink offers free tech-support both online and over the phone.
In addition to SeeYouLink, some other companies worth a look that offer similar services include InTouchLink, which can be used on a PC, Mac or iPad and costs $13.75 per month or $150 per year. Pointer Ware, which works on Windows PCs and costs a one-time fee of $149, or you can subscribe monthly for $8 per month. And BigScreenLive, that operates on Windows PCs and runs $9.95 per month for an annual membership.
If you find that you would rather purchase your grandmother a new computer that's designed for seniors and is ready to go right out of the box, you have options here too.
Two of the most popular are the Telikin (800-230-3881) which costs between $699 and $999 – this same computer is also sold as the "WOW" computer through firstSTREET. And MyGait (866-469-4248), which runs $799 or $899 plus a $20 monthly service fee.
How to Track Down Financial Assistance Programs for SeniorsDear Savvy Senior,
What resources can you recommend for locating government assistance programs for seniors? My husband and I have been helping support his mother for the past three years and we can't afford to do it any longer.
Locating government benefits and financial assistance programs for seniors is actually pretty easy to do thanks to two key resources created by the National Council on Aging (NCOA) and the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a). Here's where you can turn to for help.
If you have access to the Internet, the easiest and most convenient way to search for benefits for seniors is at benefitscheckup.org.
Created by the NCOA 10 years ago, BenefitsCheckUp is a free, confidential web-based service that helps low-income seniors and their families identify federal, state and private benefits programs that can help with prescription drug costs, health care, utilities, and other basic needs. This site contains more than 2,000 programs across the country.
To help identify benefits that could help your mother-in-law, you'll need to fill out an online questionnaire that asks things like her date of birth, zip code, expenses, income, assets, veteran status and a few other factors. It takes about 15 minutes to complete.
Once completed, you'll get a report detailing all programs and services she may be eligible for. You can also apply for many of the programs online, or you can print an application form, fill it out and mail it in.
If, however, you don't have Internet access you can also get help over the phone by calling the Eldercare Locator (800-677-1116), which will assign you a counselor to review your mother-in-law's situation, and provide you with a list of possible programs she may be eligible for, and who to contact to get the ball rolling.
Types of Benefits
Depending on her income level and where she lives, some of the different benefits that may be available to your mother-in-law include:
Food Assistance: Programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can help pay for her groceries. The average monthly SNAP benefit is currently $119 for seniors living alone. Other programs that may help include the Emergency Food Assistance Program, Commodity Supplemental Food Program, and the Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program.
Health Assistance: 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 Assistance: 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.
Heating and Cooling 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. The average SSI payment is around $500 per month.
In addition to these programs, there are numerous other benefits such as HUD housing options, home weatherization assistance, tax relief, various veteran's benefits, transportation, respite care and free legal assistance.
How to Save Money by Donating Your Body to ScienceDear Savvy Senior
What can you tell me about body donations? With little money to spare, I'm looking for a cheap way to die and have heard that donating my body to science is free, not to mention it benefits medical research.
–Old and Poor
If you're looking to eliminate your final farewell expense and help advance medical research, donating your body to science is a great option to consider. Here's what you should know.
Each year, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Americans donate their whole body, after death, to medical facilities throughout the country to be used in medical research projects, anatomy lessons and surgical practice.
After using your body, these facilities will then provide free cremation – which typically costs $600 to $3,000 – and will either bury or scatter your ashes in a local cemetery or return them to your family, usually within a year or two.
Here are a few other tidbits you need to know to help you decide on whether whole-body donation is right for you.
If you do decide you want to donate your body, it's best to make arrangements in advance with a body donation program in your area. Most programs are offered by university-affiliated medical schools. To find one near you, the University of Florida maintains a list of U.S. programs and their contact information.
In addition to the medical schools, there are also a number of private organizations like Anatomy Gifts Registry, BioGift and Science Care that accept whole body donations too.
If you don't have internet access, you can get help over the phone by calling the National Family Service Desk which operates a free body donation referral service during business hours at 800-727-0700.
Once you locate a program in your area, call and ask them to mail you an information/registration packet that will explain exactly how their program works.
To sign up, you'll simply need to fill out a couple of forms. But, you can always change your mind by revoking your authorization in writing.
After you have made arrangements, you then need to tell your family members so they will know what to do and who to contact after your death. It's also a good idea to tell your doctor and put your wishes in writing in your advance directives. These are legal documents that include a medical power of attorney and living will that spell out your wishes regarding your end-of-life medical treatment when you can no longer make decisions for yourself.
If you don't have an advance directive, go to caringinfo.org or call 800-658-8898 where you can get free state-specific forms with instructions to help you make one.
Help for Seniors Who Worry About Memory ProblemsDear Savvy Senior,
My mother, who's 72, has become very forgetful lately and is worried she may have Alzheimer's. Is her forgetfulness really something we should worry about? What should we do?
Many seniors worry about memory lapses as they get older, fearing it may be the first signs of Alzheimer's disease or some other type of dementia. To get some insight on the seriousness of your mom's problem, here are some key warning signs to be vigilant of and some resources you can turn to for help.
As we grow older, some memory difficulties – such as trouble remembering names of people or places or forgetting where you put your glasses – are associated with normal aging. But the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease are much more than simple memory lapses. Knowing the early warning signs is a good first step in recognizing the difference between typical age-related memory loss and a more serious problem. To help you evaluate your mom's condition, here's a checklist of some common early symptoms to watch for:
Another good screening tool is the self-administered cognitive screening (SAGE) test that was developed at The Ohio State University Medical Center. This test helps identify mild cognitive impairment and early dementia, and can be taken at home in about 10 to 15 minutes. You can download the SAGE test along with scoring instructions at sagetest.osu.edu.
After going through the warning signs and/or testing of your mom, if you're still concerned, get her in to see her doctor for a thorough medical examination. Her doctor may then refer her to a geriatrician or neurologist who specializes in diagnosing and treating memory loss or Alzheimer's disease.
Keep in mind that even if your mom is experiencing some memory problems, it doesn't necessarily mean she has early stage Alzheimer's. Many memory problems are brought on by other factors like stress, depression, thyroid disease, side effects of medications, sleep disorders, vitamin deficiencies and other medical conditions. And by treating these conditions she can reduce or eliminate the problem.
Free Memory Screening
Another option you should know about is National Memory Screening Day on Nov. 13, where your mom can get her memory tested for free. Sponsored by the Alzheimer's Foundation of America (AFA), this free service provides a confidential, face-to-face memory screening that takes about 10 minutes to complete and consists of questions and/or tasks to evaluate her memory status.
The screening is given by doctors, nurse practitioners, psychologists, social workers or other healthcare professionals in more than 2,500 sites across the country. It's also important to know that this screening is not a diagnosis. Instead, its goal is to detect problems and refer individuals with these problems for further evaluation.
To find a screening site in your area visit nationalmemoryscreening.org or call 866-232-8484. The AFA recommends checking for a screening location shortly before Nov. 13, because new sites are constantly being added.
Paying for Nursing Home Care with MedicaidDear Savvy Senior
What are the eligibility requirements to get Medicaid coverage for nursing home care?
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, 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 includes 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 $525,000 (this limit is higher – up to $786,000 – 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).
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 $113,640 (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 $1,838 and $2,841. 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.
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.