Savvy Senior

March 15, 2012  
Filed under Columnists

savy-sr

How to Locate Discounts If You’re 50 or Older

By Jim Miller

Dear Savvy Senior,

I just turned 50 and would like to know what resources you recommend for locating senior discounts.

— Love To Save

Dear Love,

One of the great perks of growing older in the U.S. is the many discounts that are available to boomers and seniors. If you don’t mind admitting your age, here are some tips and tools to help you find them.

Always Ask

The first thing to know is that not all businesses advertise them, but many give senior discounts just for asking, so don’t ever be shy to ask. You also need to know that while some discounts are available as soon as you turn 50, many others may not kick in until you turn 55, 60, 62 or 65.

Search Online

Because senior discounts are constantly changing and can vary greatly depending on where you live and the time of the year, the Internet is one of your best resources for locating them.

Start by going to SeniorDiscounts.com, a massive website that lists more than 250,000 discounts on a wide variety of products and services like airlines, car rentals, travel, recreation, local transportation, shopping, restaurants, hotels, state and national parks, medical services, pharmacies, museums and more. You can search for discounts by city and state or ZIP code, or by the category you’re interested in, for free. For $13 you can become a premium member and get additional, select discounts.

Another great website for locating 50-and-older discounts is Sciddy.com. This site also lets you search for free by city, state or ZIP code, as well as by business or category.

Join a Club

Another good avenue to senior discounts is through membership organizations like AARP, which offers its 50 and older members a wide variety of discounts through affiliate businesses (see discounts.aarp.org). Annual AARP membership fees are $16, or less if you join for multiple years.

There are other alternative organizations you can join that also provide discounts such as The Seniors Coalition or the American Seniors Association. Or, for federal workers, there’s the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association.

Types of Discounts

Here’s a brief rundown of some of the different types of discounts you can expect to find.

Supermarkets: Many locally owned grocery stores offer senior discount programs, as do some chains, which offer some discounts on certain days of the week but they vary by location. You’ll need to ask.

Retailers: Many thrift stores and certain retailers like Kohl’s, Bealls, Dressbarn and Ross Stores offer a break to seniors on a certain day each week.

Travel: Southwest Airlines provides the best senior fares in the U.S. to passengers 65 and older, while Amtrak offers a 15 percent discount and Greyhound offers 5 percent off to travelers over 62. And, most hotels in the U.S. offer senior discounts, usually ranging from 10 to 30 percent.

Car Services: If you’re renting a car, most car rental companies provide discounts to customers who belong to organizations like AARP. And some Jiffy Lube and Midas service centers offer discounts to seniors for auto repair and maintenance.

Restaurants: Senior savings are common at restaurants and fast food establishments, ranging from free coffee, to drinks, to discounts off your total order. Chains known for their senior discounts include McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Applebee’s, Arby’s, Chili’s and Friendly’s.

Entertainment: Most movie theaters, plays, ballets, symphonies, museums, zoos and aquariums provide reduced admission to seniors over 60 or 65. And seniors over 62 are eligible to get the “America the Beautiful – Senior Pass” for $10, which provides a lifetime of free access to all national parks and federal recreational lands.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Look for the upcoming launch of SeniorCoupons.com


Resources for Making a Home Senior-Friendly

By Jim Miller

Dear Savvy Senior,

My husband and I are both in our 60s and are interested in making some modest changes to our home to make it more practical and senior-friendly, but aren’t sure what to do. What resources can you recommend to help us figure this out?

— Homebodies

 

Dear Homebodies,

Most seniors, like you and your husband, want to stay living in their own home. But being able to do so often depends on how easy it will be to get around the house if you develop physical limitations.

Here are some helpful resources you can turn to in order to get an idea of what types of improvements you should make that will make your home safer and more convenient as you grow older.

Get Informed

A good first step in making your house senior-friendly is to do a home assessment. Go through your house, room by room, as if you’ve never set foot in it before, looking for problem areas like potential tripping or slipping hazards, and areas that are hard to access. To help you with this, there are various organizations that offer published lists of questions to ask, and things to look for to identify problems.

The Fall Prevention Center of Excellence (see homemods.org), for example, offers a number of online checklists including one called “How Well Does Your Home Meet Your Needs?” that you can access directly at homeneedschecklist.org. Or, download and print off the National Caregivers Library “Home Modification Checklist” at caregiverslibrary.org – click on “Checklists & Forms,” then on “Housing” to get there.

AARP also has an excellent resource called “The AARP Home Fit Guide” that provides a checklist and tips to keep your home safe and livable as you age. You can access it at homefitguide.org, or if you’re an AARP member, call 888-687-2277 and ask them to mail you a free copy.

Personalized Advice

If you want more personalized help, consider getting a professional in-home assessment with an occupational therapist.

An occupational therapist, or OT, can evaluate the challenges and shortcomings of your home, make modification recommendations and refer you to products and services to help you make improvements. Ask your doctor for a referral to an OT in your area. Your local Area Agency on Aging (in northern Vermont, CVAA can be reached at 865-0360) can also help you find nearby therapists.

Many health insurance providers, including Medicare, will pay for a home assessment by an OT if prescribed by your doctor. However, they will not cover the physical upgrades to the home.

Another good option is to contact a builder who’s a Certified Aging in Place Specialist. He or she can suggest ways to modify your home that will fit your needs and budget. To find one, go to the National Association of Home Builders website at nahb.org/hireacaps where you can search by state and zip code.

More Ideas

To get a list of more senior-friendly home improvement ideas and illustrations, see the National Aging in Place Council website at ageinplace.org – click on “Practical Advice” then on “Making Your Home Senior-Friendly.”

Dying With Debt: Will Your  Children Inherit Your Obligations?

By Jim Miller

 

Dear Savvy Senior,

What happens to a person’s debt after they die? At age 78, I have accumulated quite a bit of credit card and medical debt over the past few years and am concerned about leaving my son and daughter with a big bill after I die. What can you tell me?

— Old and Broke

Dear Old,

In most cases when a person with debt dies, it’s his or her estate, not their children’s, that’s legally responsible. Here’s how it works.

When you die, your estate – which consists of the stuff you own while you’re alive (home, car, cash, etc.) – will be responsible for paying your debts. Whatever is left over is passed along to your heirs as dictated by the terms of your will, if you have one. If you don’t have a will, the intestacy laws of the state you reside in (see mystatewill.com) will determine how your estate will be distributed.

If, however, you die broke, or there isn’t enough money left over to pay your unsecured debts – credit cards, medical bills, personal loans – then your estate is declared insolvent, and your creditors (those you owe) will have to eat the loss.

There are, however, a couple of exceptions that would make your children legally responsible for your unsecured debt after you pass away: if your son or daughter is a joint holder on a credit card account that you owe on; or if they co-signed on a loan with you.

Secured debts – loans attached to an asset such as a house or a car – are another story. If you have a mortgage or car loan when you die, those monthly payments will need to be made by your estate or heirs, or the lender can seize the property.

Untouchable Assets

You also need to be aware that there are some assets, such as 401(k) and 403(b) accounts, brokerage accounts, and some life insurance policies that creditors cannot get access to. That’s because these accounts typically have designated beneficiaries, and the money goes directly to those people without passing through the estate.

Tell Your Kids

If you haven’t already done so, you need to inform your kids and the executor of your will of your financial situation so there are no surprises after you die.

If you do indeed die with debt, and you have no assets, settling your estate should be fairly simple. Your executor will need to send out letters to your creditors explaining the situation, including a copy of your death certificate, and that will probably take care of it. But, your kids may still have to deal with aggressive debt collectors who try to guilt them into paying.

If you have some assets, but not enough to pay all your debts, your state’s probate court has a distinct list of what bills get priority. The details vary by state, but generally estate administrating fees, funeral expenses, taxes and last illness medical bills get paid first, followed by secured debts and lastly credit card debts.

Get Help

If you have questions regarding your specific situation, you should consult an attorney. If your need help locating one use findlegalhelp.org, a consumers guide created by the American Bar Association that offers referrals and links to free and low-cost legal help in your area based on your income level.

If you don’t have internet access, call the Eldercare Locator at 800-677-1116 for referrals.

Exercises To Help Ease Arthritis Pain

By Jim Miller

Dear Savvy Senior,

Can exercise help seniors with arthritis? I have osteoarthritis and have read that certain exercises can help ease the pain, but I don’t know where to start, and I certainly don’t want to make it any worse than it already is. What can you tell me?

—Sedentary Sally

Dear Sally,

Lots of seniors who have arthritis believe that exercise will worsen their condition, but that’s not true. Study after study has shown that exercise is actually one of the best treatments for osteoarthritis.

Proper and careful exercises can help reduce joint pain and stiffness, strengthen muscles around the joints and increase flexibility. It also helps manage other chronic conditions that are common among seniors with arthritis, such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Here are some tips to help you get moving.

Exercises for Arthritis

Determining exactly which types of exercises are best for you depends on the form and severity of your arthritis, and which joints are involved. It’s best to work with your doctor or a physical therapist to help you develop an exercise program that works for you. The different types of exercises that are most often recommended to seniors with arthritis include:

Range-of-motion exercises: These are gentle stretching exercises that can relieve stiffness as well as improve your ability to move your joints through their normal range of motion. These exercises should be done daily.

Strengthening exercise: Calisthenics, weight training and working with resistance bands are recommended (two or more days a week) to maintain and improve your muscle strength, which helps support and protect your joints.

Aerobic exercises: Low-impact activities like walking, cycling, swimming or water aerobics are all recommended three to five times per week to help improve cardiovascular health, control weight and improve your overall function.

It’s also important to keep in mind that when you first start exercising, you need to go slowly to give your body time to adjust. If you push yourself too hard, you can aggravate your joint pain. However, some muscle soreness or joint achiness in the beginning is normal.

To help you manage your pain, start by warming up with some simple stretches or range of motion exercises for five to 10 minutes before you move on to strengthening or aerobic exercises. Another tip is to apply heat to the joints you’ll be working before you exercise, and use cold packs after exercising to reduce inflammation.

If you’re experiencing a lot of pain while you exercise, you may need to modify the frequency, duration or intensity of your exercises until the pain improves. Or you may need to try a different activity – for example switching from walking to water aerobics. But it you’re having severe, sharp or constant pain, or large increases in swelling or your joints feel hot or red, you need to stop and see your doctor.

Exercise Resources

To help you exercise at home, there are a number of arthritis exercise DVDs you can purchase to guide you through a wide variety of activities. Collage Video (collagevideo.com, 800-819-7111) sells several at prices ranging between $10 and $25, as does the Arthritis Foundation Store at afstore.org or 800-283-7800.

Also see go4life.niapublications.org, a resource created by the National Institute on Aging that offers a free exercise DVD and book that provides illustrated examples of exercises you can do to improve your condition. You can order your free copies online or by calling 800-222-2225.

If you need some motivation or don’t like exercising alone, ask your doctor about exercise programs in your area for people with arthritis. Hospitals and clinics sometimes offer special programs, as do local health clubs and senior centers. The Arthritis Foundation also conducts exercise and aquatic programs for people with arthritis in many communities throughout the U.S. Contact your local branch (Arthritis Foundation – Northern New England Chapter, 6 Chenell Dr. Suite 260, Concord, NH 03301; info.nne@arthritis.org; toll-free: 800-639-2113) to find out what may be available near you. Also see fightarthritispain.org for more tips.


How to Find and Research Doctors Who Accept Medicare

By Jim Miller

Dear Savvy Senior,

What resources are available to help seniors locate and research Medicare doctors? My husband and I are approaching age 65 and need to find a new internist or primary care doctor who accepts Medicare. Our current doctor is not enrolled with Medicare and will not continue seeing us as Medicare patients.

—Looking For Care

Dear Looking,

Depending on where you live, finding a new primary care doctor or specialist that accepts Medicare patients can be challenging. Because of low reimbursement rates and greater paperwork hassles, many doctors today have opted out of Medicare or they’re not accepting new patients with Medicare coverage.

With that said, Medicare is now offering a service that makes finding Medicare-approved doctors a little easier. And, there are a number of good resources available today that can help you check up on prospective doctors for free. Here’s what you should know.

Medicare Doctors

The government’s new online “Physician Compare” tool is one of the easiest ways to locate doctors in your area that accept traditional Medicare. Just go to www.medicare.gov/find-a-doctor where you can do a search by physician’s name, medical specialty or by geographic location. Or, if you don’t have Internet access you can also get this information by calling 800-633-4227.

Keep in mind, though, that locating a Medicare-approved doctor doesn’t guarantee you’ll be accepted as a patient. Many doctors limit the number of Medicare patients they accept while others have a full patient roster don’t accept any new patients. You’ll need to call the individual doctor’s office to find out.

Another option you may want to consider is to join a Medicare Advantage plan. These are government approved, private health plans (usually HMOs and PPOs) sold by insurance companies that you can choose in place of original Medicare. These plans may have more doctors available than original Medicare does. See www.medicare.gov/find-a-plan to research this option.

Doctor’s Check Up

After you’ve found a few Medicare-approved doctors that are accepting new patients, there are plenty of resources available today that can help you research them. Some of the best include HealthGrades, Vitals and RateMDs. These are free doctor-rating websites that provide important background information as well as consumer comments and ratings from past patients. Here’s a breakdown of what each site offers:

• Healthgrades.com provides in-depth profiles on around 750,000 U.S. physicians including their education and training, hospital affiliations, board certification, awards and recognitions, professional misconduct, disciplinary action and malpractice records. It also offers a 5-star ratings scale from past patients on a number of issues like communication and listening skills, wait time, time spent with the patient, office friendliness and more.

• Vitals.com provides some basic background information on around 720,000 U.S. doctors along with unedited comments from past patients and ratings on things like promptness, bedside manner, accurate diagnosis and more.

• Ratemds.com primarily offers ratings and anonymous comments from past patients.

It’s a good idea to check out all three doctor-rating sites so you can get a bigger sampling and a better feel of how previous patients are rating a particular doctor.

Fee-Based Help

Another good resource to help you gather information is at angieslist.com (888-888-5478). This is a fee-based membership service that also offers doctors ratings and reviews from other members in your area for $7.60 for one month or $25 for the year.

Or, consider purchasing a copy of the “Consumers’ Guide to Top Doctors.” Created by Consumers’ Checkbook, a nonprofit consumer organization, this book will help you find top-rated doctors that have been recommended by other doctors. Their database lists 24,000 physicians, in 35 different fields, in 50 metro areas. The cost for this guide is $25 plus shipping and handling (call 800-213-7283 to order a copy), or view the information online at checkbook.org/doctors for $25.

Eye Care Coverage and Services for Retirees

Dear Savvy Senior,

Does Medicare cover eye care? I had excellent vision insurance through my employer for many years but lost it when I retired, and now am confused as to what Medicare actually covers. What can you tell me?

— Living on a Budget

Dear Living,

Many retirees are confused with what Medicare will and won’t cover when it comes to eye care. Here’s a breakdown of how Medicare handles different types of vision care services, along with some additional tips that can help you get affordable care when needed.

Medicare Coverage

If you have original Medicare (Part A and B), it’s important to know that “routine” vision care like eye exams, eye refractions, eyeglasses or contact lenses are generally not covered. But, “medically necessary” eye care usually is. Here’s a list of what is covered:

Eye surgeries: Any surgical procedure that helps repair the function of the eye like cataract removal, cornea transplant, glaucoma surgery, etc.

Eyeglasses or contacts: Only if you’ve had cataract surgery.

Medical eye exams: Only if you’re having vision problems that indicate a serious eye condition like macular degeneration, retinopathy, glaucoma or dry eye syndrome.

Glaucoma screenings: Annual screenings for those at high risk (have diabetes, a family history of glaucoma, are African-American or Hispanic).

Diabetic eye exams: If you have diabetes, yearly exams for diabetic retinopathy.

Macular degeneration: Certain treatments are covered.

You also need to be aware that of the eye care services that are covered by Medicare, you’re still responsible for 20 percent of the cost — Medicare pays the other 80 percent.

To help with this out-of-pocket expense, some Medigap supplemental policies provide gap coverage. Or, if you have Medicare Advantage, some plans provide eye care benefits. Be sure you check with your plan administrator.

Ways to Save

If you find your eye care needs aren’t covered, or you can’t afford the 20 percent out-of-pocket that Medicare doesn’t cover, there are other ways to save. For starters, if you need a refractive eye exam or a new pair of eyeglasses, many optometrists and eyeglass dealers offer discounts – usually between 10 and 30 percent – to seniors who request it. Memberships in groups like AAA and AARP can also provide lower rates.

Another way to get low-cost eye care is at an optometry school. Many offer affordable care provided by students that are overseen by their professors. See opted.org for a directory of schools and their contact information.

Assistance Programs

Depending on where you live, there may also be some local clinics or charitable organizations that provide free or discounted eye care or eyeglasses. Put in a call to your local Lions Club to see what’s available in your area. To reach your local club, call 800-747-4448 to get the number to your state Lions Club office, which can refer you to your community representative.

Or, if you need medical eye care, check into EyeCare America. This is a national program that provides comprehensive medical eye examinations to seniors age 65 and older, and up to one year of treatment at no cost. They accept Medicare or other insurance as full payment. And if you don’t have insurance, care is free. To learn more or to find out if you qualify, visit eyecareamerica.org.

If you’re under age 65, some other services that can help include Mission Cataract USA (missioncataractusa.org), which provides free cataract surgery to low-income people who don’t have insurance. Vision USA (aoa.org/visionusa.xml, 800-766-4466), which provides free vision care to uninsured and low-income workers and their families. And the Knights Templar Eye Foundation (214-888-0220, knightstemplar.org/ktef), which provides financial assistance for eye surgeries to low-income people who don’t have private insurance.

Downsizing Solutions

What tips can you recommend to help seniors with downsizing? I have been thinking about moving to a retirement community, but in order to move I need to get rid of a lot of my stuff. I have a four bedroom house as well as an attic and basement that are full. Any tips would be appreciated.

–Overwhelmed Senior

Dear Overwhelmed,

The process of weeding through a house full of stuff and parting with old possessions can be difficult and overwhelming for many seniors. Most people in your situation start the downsizing process by giving their unused possessions to their kids or grandkids, which you can do up to $13,000 per person per year before you’re required to file a federal gift tax return, using IRS Form 709. Beyond that, here are a few extra tips and services that may help you.

Downsizing for Dollars

Selling your stuff is one way you can downsize and pad your pocketbook at the same time. If you’re willing, have the time and access to the Internet, online selling at sites like Craigslist and eBay is the best way to make top dollar. Craigslist.org is a huge classified ads site that lets you sell your stuff for free. And eBay.com lets you conduct your own online auction for a small listing fee, and if it sells, 9 percent of the sale price, up to $100. Or, if you don’t want to do the selling yourself you can get help from an eBay trading assistant who will do everything for you. They typically charge between 33 and 40 percent of the selling price. Go to ebaytradingassistant.com to search for trading assistants in your area.

Some other popular selling options are consignment shops, garage sales and estate sales. Consignment shops are good for selling old clothing, household furnishings and decorative items. You typically get half of the final sale price. Garage sales are another option, or you could hire an estate sale company to come in and sell your items. Some companies will even pick up your stuff and sell them at their own location – they usually take around 50 percent of the profits.

Donate It

If you itemize on your tax returns, donating your belongings is another way to downsize and get a tax deduction. Goodwill (goodwill.org, 800-741-0186) and the Salvation Army (satruck.org, 800-728-7825) are two big charitable organizations that will come to your house and pick up your donations. If your deduction exceeds $500, you’ll need to file Form 8283, “Noncash Charitable Contributions.” You’ll also need a receipt from the organization for every batch of items you donate. And be sure you keep an itemized list of donated items. See IRS Publication 526 (www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p526.pdf) for more information.

Disposal Services

If you have a lot of junk you want to get rid of, contact your municipal trash service to see if they provide bulk curbside pickup services. Or, depending on where you live, you could hire a company like 1-800-Got-Junk (1800gotjunk.com, 800-468-5865) or Junk-King (junk-king.com, 800-995-5865) to come in and haul it off for a moderate fee. Another good option is Bagster by Waste Management (thebagster.com, 877-789-2247). With this service, you buy the bag (it measures 8 feet by 4 feet by 2.5 feet) at your local home-improvement store like Lowes or Home Depot for around $30. Fill it to a limit of 3,300 pounds and schedule a pickup which costs between $80 up to $205 depending on your location.

Get Help

You can also hire a professional “senior move manager” to do the entire job for you. These are organizers who will sort through your stuff and arrange for the disposal through an estate sale, donations or consignment. Costs for these services usually range between $1,000 and $5,000. See nasmm.com or call 877-606-2766 to search for a senior move manager in your area. Or, you can hire a professional organizer through the National Association of Professional Organizers at napo.net.

Assistive Listening Devices Can Help Seniors Hear Better

Dear Savvy Senior,
What can you tell me about assistive listening devices? My husband is hearing impaired but doesn’t like wearing his hearing aids, so I’m wondering if some of these devices can help.
— Loud Talking Spouse

Dear Loud,

Assistive listening devices (or ALDs) are very useful products that can help hearing-impaired people – with and without hearing aids – hear better. Here’s what you should know.

Listening Helpers

ALDs are electronic amplifying devices that will let your husband adjust the volume and tone so that he can hear and understand the television, telephone or other people speaking. It’s also important to know that these devices work best for people with mild to moderate hearing loss, you don’t need a prescription to buy them, and they usually aren’t covered by insurance or Medicare. Here’s a breakdown of the different types of ALDs that can help.

Telephone Amplifiers: To improve hearing over the telephone there are a number of handset and in-line amplifiers you can add to your regular phone, or you can purchase an amplified telephone. Most amplified phones allow you to adjust the volume and tone for better clarity and they usually come with extra loud ringers and flashing ring indicators to alert you when a call is coming in. Clarity (clarityproducts.com, 800-426-3738) and ClearSounds (clearsounds.com, 888-965-9043) make a nice variety of these products with prices ranging from $30 up to around $300. Harriscomm.com, teltex.com and soundbytes.com are also good sites to shop. Or, see if your state has a specialized telecommunications equipment program (see tedpa.org) which provides free amplified phones.

If the amplified products don’t do the trick, another option is caption phones. These are telephones that have a built-in screen that will let your husband listen to the caller, as well as read written, word-for-word captions of everything the caller is saying. Go to captel.com (or 800-233-9130), and click on your state to learn more.

TV Listening Systems: If hearing the television is a problem, a TV listening device will let your husband increase the volume and adjust the tone to meet his needs, without blasting out you or the rest of the family. The best devices available today are wireless infrared systems that come with a headset. Many of these devices work with radios and stereos, too. Or, if your husband would rather not wear a headset, some systems offer a small speaker that can be placed by his chair, and many work with T-coil enabled hearing aids. TV Ears (tvears.com, 888-883-3277) is one of the best products sold today with prices starting at $100.

Personal Listening Devices: Depending on your husband’s needs, there are many different types of listening devices on the market, in all price ranges, that can help. For one-on-one and small group conversations, a pocket-sized amplifier that comes with a small microphone and ear buds may do. Or, for a wider range of hearing capabilities consider FM listening devices. These are wireless products that can boost hearing in many difficult listening situations including auditoriums and lecture halls. FM devices come with a small microphone and transmitter placed on or by the person speaking, and the listener wears a receiver that may be used with ear buds, earphones, or with T-coil enabled hearing aids when worn with a neck loop. Harriscomm.com and independentliving.com are two good sites for locating these types of products.

Alerting Devices: There are also a variety of alerting devices that can help people who have trouble hearing the doorbell, alarm clock, telephone or smoke detector. These products use flashing lights, special multi-tone ringers or vibrating devices as a means to alert you. You can find these items at many of the websites previously listed, along with sonicalert.com and silentcall.com for around $50 to $150.

Savvy Tip: For more information and assistance with ALDs, contact an audiologist or hearing instrument specialists (see howsyourhearing.org or ihsinfo.org to find one near you). They’re familiar with all these technologies and can help youchoose the best products to meet your needs.

Send your uestions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.

Seeking Social Security Disability Benefits

By Jim Miller

Dear Savvy Senior,
What do I need to do to get Social Security disability? I’m 58 years old and have back problems that are keeping me from doing my job, but I’ve heard it’s very difficult to actually get disability benefits. What tips can you offer?
— Disabled Dave

Dear Dave,
The process of getting Social Security disability benefits can be tricky and time-consuming, but you can help yourself by doing some homework and getting prepared. Here’s what you should know.

Last year, around 3 million people applied for Social Security disability benefits, but two-thirds of them were denied. Why the high denial rate? Because most applicants fail to provide sufficient medical evidence that proves they’re disabled and can’t work. While there are no magic tips to getting Social Security disability, there are several steps you can take to give yourself a better chance for a favorable decision.

Get Informed
Your first step is to know if your disability meets Uncle Sam’s criteria. Social Security strictly requires that you must be physically or mentally unable to perform “any” substantial work and have a medical condition that’s lasted or is expected to last at least a year or result in death. You must also have worked five out of the last 10 years and be under full retirement age. For more details, see ssa.gov/dibplan/dqualify4.htm and go through the five questions Social Security uses to decide if you’re disabled.
If you think you qualify, your next step is to learn all you can about how the program works. Your best resource is SocialSecurity.gov – click on “Disability.” Or, if you don’t have Internet access, Social Security offers lots of free publications that you can have mailed to you including “Disability Benefits” (publication No. 05-10029) which provides a good comprehensive overview. Call 800-772-1213 to order publications.

Get Prepared
After you bone up, your next step is to gather your personal, financial and medical information for the application process. You’ll need your Social Security number; birth certificate; names, addresses and phone numbers of the doctors, hospitals and clinics that took care of you and dates of your visits; names and dosage of all the medicine you take; medical records from your doctors, therapists, hospitals and clinics; lab and test results; documents stating your physician’s objective view of your condition, restrictions and limitations; a summary of where you worked and the kind of work you did; and a copy of your most recent W-2 Form or, if you are self-employed, your federal tax return for the past year.

How to Apply
After you get your information together, you can apply either online at ssa.gov/applyfordisability, or call 800-772-1213 to make an appointment to apply at your local Social Security office or to set up an appointment for someone to take your claim over the phone. The whole process lasts about an hour. If you schedule an appointment, a “Disability Starter Kit” that will help you get ready for your interview will be mailed to you. If you apply online, the kit is available at ssa.gov/disability.

Be Patient
It takes three to five months from the initial application to receive either an award or initial denial of disability benefits. The only exception is if you have a chronic illness that qualifies you for a “compassionate allowance,” (see ssa.gov/compassionateallowances) which fast-tracks cases within 10 days.

Be Persistent
If Social Security denies your application for disability, you can request a hearing to appeal the decision, and you’ll be happy to know that roughly 55 percent of cases that go through a round or two of appeals end with benefits being awarded. But the bad news is, with a backlog of over 700,000 people currently waiting for a hearing, it will take a year or two for you to get one.

Get Help
If you are having trouble getting your applications in order or need help with your appeal, consider getting an attorney or a Social Security disability claims services company to represent you. A representative can only charge you if they’re successful in getting you benefits. If they do succeed, typical fees are 25 percent of past-due benefits or $6,000, whichever is less.

Send your uestions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.

Elder Mediation Can Help Adult Families Resolve Conflicts

By Jim Miller

Dear Savvy Senior,

What can you tell me about elder mediation for resolving family conflicts? My mother has Alzheimer’s disease, and to make matters worse, my three siblings and I have been perpetually arguing about how to handle her care and finances. Would this type of service be helpful to us?
— Tired of Fighting

Dear Tired,

If your siblings are willing, elder care mediation may be just what your family needs to help you work through your disagreements. Here’s what you should know.

Elder Mediation

While mediators have been used for years to help divorcing couples sort out legal and financial disagreements and avoid court battles, elder care mediation is a relatively new and specialized field designed to help families resolve disputes that are related to aging parents or other elderly relatives.

Family disagreements over an ill or elderly parent’s care giving needs, living arrangements, financial decisions and medical care are some of the many issues that an elder care mediator can help with. But don’t confuse this with family or group therapy. Mediation is only about decision-making, not feelings and emotions. The job of an elder mediator is to step in as a neutral third party to help ease family tensions, listen to everyone’s concerns, hash out disagreements and misunderstandings, and help families make decisions that are acceptable to everyone.

Good mediators can also assist your family in identifying experts who can supply information for decision making.

Your family also needs to know that the mediation process is completely confidential and voluntary, and can take anywhere from a few hours to several meetings. And if some family members live far away, a speaker phone or Webcam can be used to bring everyone together.

If you’re interested in hiring a private elder care mediator, you can expect to pay anywhere from $100 to more than $400 per hour depending on where you live and who you choose. Or, you may be able to get help through a nonprofit community mediation service which charges little to nothing.

Since there’s no formal licensing or national credentialing required for elder mediators, make sure the person you choose has extensive experience with elder issues and be sure you ask for references and check them. Most elder mediators are attorneys, social workers, counselors or other professionals who are trained in mediation and conflict resolution.

To locate an elder mediator, start by calling the CVAA Senior HelpLine at 1-800-642-5119 or go to www.cvaa.org which may be able to refer you to local resources. Or try websites like eldercaremediators.com and mediate.com. Both of these sites have directories that will let you search for mediators in your area. Or, use the National Association for Community Mediation website (www.nafcm.org) to search for free or low-cost community-based mediation programs in your area.

Mobile Safety Solutions for Seniors on the Go

By Jim Miller

Dear Savvy Senior,

Do you know of any emergency help buttons for seniors (like the Lifeline) that work away from the home? I would like to get one for my 78-year-old mother, but would like to find one that’s not limited to the house. What can you tell me?
–Searching Son

Dear Searching,

There are actually several new products on the market that give seniors the flexibility to call for help both inside and outside the home. Here’s what you should know.

Senior Help Devices

For years, emergency help buttons (also known as personal emergency response systems or PERS) like the Philips Lifeline, Life Alert and others have been popular home safety products for elderly seniors. By pushing a button on a pendant, seniors can call a 24-hour help service anytime they need it. But these devices have one major shortcoming. They only work in and around the house. If you’re in a distant location and need help, you’re out of luck – until recently. Today, there are several new products and services that can help seniors no matter where they are.

One such product is MobileHelp (mobilehelpnow.com, 800-800-1710), which provides many of the same features as a traditional home-based emergency help button, but it also has a separate mobile device that can be used to summon help anywhere you go. To call for help, your mom or dad would simply push a button, and a few seconds later an operator from MobileHelp is on the line to assist. The other great aspect about this device is that it also contains GPS technology that can locate your mom wherever she is, which is critical in emergency situations. The cost for MobileHelp is $40 per month, or $35 per month if paid a year in advance.

Another more sophisticated option is ActiveCare’s Personal Assistance Link (activecare.com, 877-219-6628), which provides mobile one-button connection to the company’s 24-hour call center to help your mom with a wide variety of needs, such as calling for emergency services, notifying family members, coordinating roadside assistance, providing directions and much more. This device also comes with fall detection software that can automatically call for help without your mom having to press a button, and GPS locating technology. It functions like a simplified cell phone so your mom can make calls. And, if your mom has dementia, the ActiveCare service let’s you set up a virtual zone area that notifies you if she wanders outside it. This service starts at $59 a month.

Also worth a look is the new LifeTrac MobileProtector from SecuraTrac (securatrac.com, 888-973-2872) that provides GPS technology, fall detection software, virtual border alerts and can operate as a cell phone. And coming in late 2011, a new device from Lifecomm which you can preview at lifecomm.com.

GPS Cell Phones

Another way to help keep your mom safe when she’s out and about is a cell phone with a built-in GPS tracking chip – many of today’s phones have them. Contact her cell phone provider to find out if her phone has it or if it can be added. With a GPS-enabled cell phone you can install free tracking software on it (at sites like buddyway.com, glympse.com or google.com/latitude) so you can know your mom’s whereabouts via your computer or cell phone. Or, if you’re a Sprint, Verizon Wireless, AT&T or Alltel customer, they all offer family locator services for a small fee. If your mom doesn’t have a cell phone, consider the AccuTracking (accutracking.com) “starter kit” that comes with a GPS Boost Mobile prepaid phone for $99, plus $16.50 for monthly service fees.

For Seniors Facing Foreclosure

 
By Jim Miller

Dear Savvy Senior,
What kind of help is available to seniors who are facing foreclosure? My 76-year-old mother has fallen behind on her house payments and is very concerned about losing her home.
—Worried Daughter

Dear Worried,
With more and more Americans carrying mortgage debt into their retirement years, the foreclosure rates among financially strapped seniors has become a big problem. Here are some things you can do to help your mom.

Foreclosure Help
If your mom has fallen behind on her mortgage payments, or if she has already received a letter or phone call about missed payments, your first step is to contact the lender immediately to explain her situation and see if she can work out a payment plan. Be prepared to provide her financial information, such as her monthly income and expenses.

You also need to talk to a foreclosure avoidance counselor.These are HUD-approved, trained counselors that provide free advice and will help you and your mom understand the law and her options, and organize her finances. They can also represent her in negotiations with her lender if you need them to.To find a government-approved housing counseling agency in your area visit findaforeclosurecounselor.org, or call the Homeownership Preservation Foundation’s HOPE Hotline at 888-995-4673.

Another helpful resource you should know about, and one your counselor can help you explore, is the Making Home Affordable program. Created by the Obama Administration in 2009, this program offers struggling homeowners the opportunity to modify or refinance their mortgage to make their monthly payments more affordable. It also includes the Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives Program for those who are interested in a short sale or deed-in-lieu of foreclosure. To learn more about these programs and their eligibility requirements see makinghomeaffordable.gov.

Consider a Reverse Mortgage
If your mom has some equity built up in her house, another option worth considering is a reverse mortgage. This lets seniors (age 62 and older) borrow money against their homes to be used to eliminate their mortgage payments, and it doesn’t have to be paid back as long as they live there. Reverse mortgages have also gotten better in recent months as many lenders have reduced or waived up-front origination or servicing fees making them a much better deal for borrowers. But, be aware that reverse mortgages are complex and they aren’t right for everyone. To learn more, or to contact a reverse mortgage counselor visit hud.gov/offices/hsg/sfh/hecm/hecmhome.cfm or call 800-569-4287.

Watch For Scams
You and your mom also need to be aware of the many foreclosure and loan modification scams that are out there today. These are con artists that reach out to foreclosure victims via letter, phone call or email, or they may advertise their services on television, radio or in the newspaper, claiming they can stop your mom’s foreclosure or can negotiate a loan modification for her – if she pays them a fee first. Or, they may try to get her to sign documents for a rescue loan that actually surrenders the title of her house. Never sign anything or hand over any money unless you run it by your HUD counselor first. You can learn more about foreclosure scams at loanscamalert.org.

Savvy Tip: Make sure your mom is not missing out on any financial assistance programs. The National Council on Aging’s benefitscheckup.org website contains a database of more than 2,000 federal, state and local programs that can help seniors in need. The site will help you locate programs that your mom may be eligible for and will show you how to apply.

What Health Care Reform Means for Seniors

By Jim Miller

Dear Savvy Senior,
How will the new healthcare bill affect seniors? My wife and I both receive Medicare benefits and would like to know what we can expect.
— Concerned Senior

Dear Concerned,
There are several ways the new healthcare reform law will affect seniors on Medicare and those planning for their retirement years.

Drug Benefit Boost
If you’re one of the 27 million U.S. seniors who has a Medicare (Part D) prescription drug plan, healthcare reform has just upgraded your coverage. Seniors that fall into the coverage gap known as the doughnut hole will get a $250 rebate to help pay for their medications this year, and a 50 percent discount on brand-name drugs next year. By 2020, the coverage gap will be eliminated. That means that seniors who now pay 100 percent of their drug costs once they’re in the doughnut hole will pay 25 percent.

Currently, seniors fall into the doughnut hole once they hit their $2,830 annual limit. Then they have to pay $3,610 out-of-pocket for drugs before prescription coverage picks up again at $6,440.

Free Screenings
In addition to the prescription drug plan improvements, Medicare’s preventive services will also be beefed-up under the new law. Currently, traditional Medicare covers a one-time “Welcome to Medicare” physical, but only to new beneficiaries within the first 12 months of enrollment. And, they pay 80 percent of most health screening costs with you footing the bill for the remaining 20 percent. But starting next year, Medicare beneficiaries can get annual wellness exams and preventive tests, like screenings for high blood pressure, diabetes and certain cancers, for free.

Dis-Advantaged
The news isn’t so good for seniors who have a Medicare Advantage plan. These are plans run by private insurers and are an alternative to Original Medicare (Part A and Part B). Many of these plans offer extra benefits that Original Medicare does not provide like free eyeglasses, hearing aids and even gym memberships. These extra benefits, however, come at an extra cost. Studies have shown that Medicare Advantage plans cost the government 14 percent more on average than Original Medicare. That’s why the new healthcare law will cut around $135 billion in subsidies over the next three to six years to the private insurers who offer these plans.

What all this means is that the 10 million seniors that have Medicare Advantage can expect their premiums or co-payments to increase, or their extra benefits to be reduced, or both, over the next few years.

Keep in mind that if you are enrolled in Medicare Advantage, you can switch to Original Medicare and join a prescription drug plan any time during the open enrollment period, which is between Jan. 1 through Feb. 15, every year. To help you compare your Medicare Advantage plan with other plans in your area or with Original Medicare, visit www.medicare.gov/mppf or call 800-633-4227. And to evaluate Part D prescription drug plans, see www.medicare.gov/mpdpf.

Long-Term Care
Another provision in the healthcare reform law that older workers approaching retirement should know about is the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) Act, which is a voluntary long-term care insurance program available through employers. Starting next year, workers can set aside money from their paychecks to pay for services and supports that many will need in their old age or if they become disabled.

This program is meant to help offset the high costs of home-based care, assisted-living facilities and nursing homes.

Those that pay into the program for at least five years will receive an average cash benefit of no less than $50 a day when they need it. The details of the program, including the eligibility, premiums and a mechanism that allows people to purchase insurance if they’re self-employed are being ironed out.

Savvy Tip: For more information visit healthreform.gov along with the Medicare Rights Center Web site at medicarerights.org.

Financial Help for Family Caregivers

Dear Savvy Senior,
I’ve been taking care of my elderly mother for nearly a year now and it’s wearing me out both physically and financially. Is there any way I could get paid to be her caregiver?
— Tapped Out

Dear Tapped,
To get paid as your mother’s caregiver, there are several possibilities you should check into, and a variety of support services that can help, too. Here’s what you should know.

Caregiving for Pay
If your mom is eligible for Medicaid, you may be able to get paid a small amount by the government. In 15 states, including Vermont, Medicaid offers a Cash and Counseling program (see cashandcounseling.org) that provides direct financial assistance to beneficiaries, and that money can be used to pay in-home caregivers. In Vermont, contact Merle Edwards-Orr at the Department of Aging and Independent Living
in Waterbury. Phone 802-241-4496; Email
merle.edwards-orr@ahs.state.vt.us

Other Options
If your mom has financial resources of her own, find out if she can afford to pay you herself. If she agrees, it may be a good idea for both of you to draft a short written contract detailing your work and payment arrangements. Or, if your mom has long-term care insurance that includes in-home care coverage, in some cases those benefits can be used to pay you.

Tax Breaks
The IRS may also be able to help you out if you can show that you pay at least half of your mother’s yearly expenses, and her annual income was below $3,650 in 2009 (not counting Social Security). If so, you can claim her as a dependent on your taxes, and reduce your taxable income by $3,650. Your mom doesn’t have to live with you to qualify as a dependent. IRS Publication 501 (see www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p501.pdf or call 800-829-3676 to get a copy mailed to you) has a worksheet that can help you.

If your mom’s income, however, is over $3,650, you can’t claim her as a dependent. But if you’re paying at least half her living expenses, you can still get a tax break if you’re helping pay her medical and long-term care costs and they exceed 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income. You can include your own medical expenses in calculating the total. See the IRS publication 502 (www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p502.pdf) for details.

Support Services
If you don’t qualify for caregivers’ pay or a tax break, you can still get some financial relief through the National Family Caregiver Support Program (NFCSP). This is a federally funded program that provides aid for specific caregiver needs like respite care or adult daycare to give you a break, counseling and support groups, and supplemental services including the purchase of medical supplies, SOS emergency response systems and even home modifications. In addition to the NFCSP, you should also check into home delivered meal programs, volunteer companion programs, and even home and personal care services. To locate all the various programs and support services in northern and central Vermont, contact the Champlain Valley Agency on Aging at 802-865-0360 or visit www.cvaa.org.

Pill Splitting: When It’s Safe, and When It Isn’t

By Jim Miller

Dear Savvy Senior,
Is pill splitting safe? I have several friends who split their prescription pills to save money, and several who don’t because they don’t think it’s safe. What can you tell me?
­— Split Decision

Dear Decision,
Splitting your pills – literally cutting them in half – is a simple way to save money on your prescription drugs but be sure you talk to your doctor first, because not all pills can be split. Here’s what you should know.

Savings and Safety
The reason pill splitting is such a cost cutter is because of a quirk in the way drugs are manufactured and priced. A pill that’s twice as strong as another may not be twice the price. In fact, it’s usually about the same price. So, buying a double-strength dose and cutting it in half may allow you to get two months worth of medicine for the price of one. But is it safe? As long as your doctor agrees that splitting your pills is OK for you, you learn how to do it properly, and you split only pills that can be split, there’s really no danger.

What to Do
If you’re interested in pill splitting, the first step is to talk to your doctor or pharmacist to find out if any of the medicines you use can be safely split. It’s also important to find out whether splitting them will save you enough money to justify the hassle.

The pills that are easiest to split are those with a score down the middle. However, not every pill that’s scored is meant to be split. Pills that are most commonly split include:
•     Cholesterol lowering drugs, like Crestor, Lipitor, and Pravachol
•     Antidepressants, like Celexa, Paxil, and Zoloft
•     High blood pressure medicines like, Monopril, Prinivil, Univasc, Zestril, Avapro and Cozaar
•     Erectile dysfunction pills, like Viagra, Cialis and Levitra

Having the right equipment helps too. Don’t use a knife to cut your pills in half. It can cause you to split them unevenly resulting in two pieces with very different dosages, which can be dangerous. Purchase a proper pill cutter. They only cost around $5 to $10 and are available at most pharmacies and large discount stores.

For convenience, you might be tempted to split the whole bottle of pills at once. But check with your doctor first. It’s possible that exposing the interior of the pills to the air could reduce their effectiveness. It’s also important to know that pills are only safely split in half, and never into smaller portions such as into thirds or quarters.

Unsafe Splitting
Many medicines, because of their ingredients or design, cannot be split safely. Here’s a list of pills that should not be split:
•    Blood thinners (Coumadin, warfarin)
•     Chemotherapy drugs
•     Anti-seizure medicines
•     Birth control pills
•     Capsules of any kind that contain powders or gels
•     Pills with a hard outside coating
•     Extended-release pills that deliver medication over time in your body
•     Pills that are coated to protect your stomach
•     Pills that crumble easily, irritate your mouth, or taste bitter.

Again, your doctor or pharmacist will know which drugs can and cannot be split. If you’re taking a medicine that can be split, you’ll need to get a prescription from your doctor for twice the dosage you need. Then you can start splitting, and saving, safely.

 

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