Family caregivers aren’t just focused on their loved ones’ health needs; they often help out with the financial obligations of daily life, too.
Those obligations can be difficult for many older adults to meet, especially with inflation surging. In fact, about a quarter of Americans age 65 and older have cut spending on at least one basic necessity, such as food, clothing or utilities, to pay health costs, according to a 2022 survey by Gallup and West Health, a nonprofit organization that focuses on affordable care for older people.
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The good news is there are federal and state programs that can lower these costs. Learn how to help your loved ones find resources they are eligible for and apply for benefits.
Find out what’s available
First, make a list of benefits your loved one is already getting and add to it as needed so there’s always an up-to-date record. If they’re in their 60s, they may already be receiving Social Security and Medicare, national programs that guarantee a certain level of income and health care to the vast majority of retired U.S. workers (and many with disabilities). To learn more, visit AARP’s Social Security Resource Center and Medicare Resource Center.
Other benefits have stringent eligibility criteria, typically based on financial need. A good place to start learning about them is the Benefits CheckUp tool maintained by the National Council on Aging. Enter your zip code and select from the list of benefit categories to pull up a list of programs, along with fact sheets and information on the application process. If they qualify for a program, find out if they want to apply and help them do so.
Another source of information about benefits is your local Area Agency on Aging. These nonprofit organizations are designated by state governments to help older residents find services they need to live independently.
The U.S. Administration on Aging’s Eldercare Locator can also shed light on services available to older adults in your community.
If you have questions about benefits associated with Medicare, your State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) can provide guidance. The site has a state-by-state directory of SHIP offices (which go by other names in some states).
Don’t forget to consider nongovernment programs that can help your loved one. For example, pharmaceutical companies often have patient assistance programs that give low-income Americans discounts on medications they need. Likewise, local utility providers sometimes offer seniors discounts on services if they have limited income.
Before starting your search, gather proof of your loved one’s monthly income and other resources. Look over their documents for important notices about changes in their public benefits (these notices can be difficult to understand). Public programs may require recipients to periodically show that they still qualify. And keep these papers organized in an easy-to-find location.
Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
In 2022 the SSI standard for low income is receiving up to $841 a month for an individual or $1,261 a month for a married couple. (Social Security does not count all income and assets in calculating eligibility; for example, a portion of work earnings are exempt, as are your home and primary car.)
People may receive both Social Security and SSI payments if they meet the program requirements.
How to apply: In most cases you must call Social Security (800-772-1213) or visit your local Social Security office to apply for SSI. People who are under 65 and disabled may be able to complete the process online in limited circumstances.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides monthly cash benefits to wartime veterans who are 65 and older or disabled or to their survivors.
There are specific requirements related to the length of active service, and the veteran cannot have had a dishonorable discharge. There is also an annually adjusted net-worth limit that takes into consideration both income and assets. In 2022 the net-worth limit to be eligible for VA pension benefits is $138,489.
Widows and widowers of deceased veterans who have not remarried and meet federal income and net-worth criteria may be eligible for a VA Survivors Pension.
Those who qualify for a VA pension may receive additional payments under the agency’s Aid and Attendance Benefits or Housebound Allowance programs if, for example, they need to pay for help with daily activities, such as bathing, eating or dressing; are largely homebound or confined to bed due to a disability; or are in a nursing home because of a loss of mental or physical abilities.
How to apply: You can apply for veterans pension benefits on the VA website.
Health care benefits
A federal and state health insurance program, Medicaid assists people and families with limited resources. Among the factors that determine eligibility are household income, family size, age and disability. Certain people with higher incomes and high medical bills may also qualify.
Medicaid is largely funded by the federal government, but each state designs and runs its own program, so eligibility criteria and covered services vary by state. Also, most states have expanded access to Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, making more adults eligible. The federal government’s Medicaid website has detailed information on each state’s program.
People with Medicare who have limited incomes may also qualify for Medicaid, which covers services that Medicare does not, including long-term nursing home care and, in some states, personal or other home care services, eye exams, eyeglasses and transportation to medical care.
Medicare Savings Programs
Medicare Savings Programs can help cover out-of-pocket Medicare costs, such as deductibles and copayments for people whose income and assets are limited. (Your home, car and some other household items don’t count toward the limits.) They include:
- The Qualified Medicare Beneficiary Program (QMB)
- The Specified Low-Income Medicare Beneficiary Program (SLMB)
- The Qualifying Individual Program (QI)
- The Qualified Disabled and Working Individuals Program (QDWI)
The QMB helps pay premiums for Medicare Part A (which covers hospitalization) and Part B (health insurance), as well as deductibles, copays and coinsurance for Medicare-covered services.
If your loved one’s income is too high for them to qualify for the QMB, they may be eligible for the SLMB or the QI, which pay for the Part B monthly premium only.
The QDWI, designed to assist people with disabilities who are still working, helps pay Part A premiums only.
How to apply: Contact your state's Medicaid office.
Medicare Part D Extra Help
This program assists people with Medicare who have limited income and assets and need help paying premiums, copayments and deductibles for Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit. To qualify in 2022, combined assets cannot top $30,950 for couples and $15,510 for individuals. (Some assets don’t apply to the income limit, such as a home, vehicles and life insurance.)
If your loved ones are enrolled in Medicaid, SSI or a Medicare Savings Program, they will automatically get Extra Help with paying for Part D. Otherwise, they will need to first apply for Extra Help and then enroll in a Medicare-approved prescription drug plan.
State Pharmaceutical Assistance Programs (SPAPs)
Some states offer these programs to help Medicare recipients with limited income pay for their prescriptions. Some SPAPs let enrollees buy medications at a discount, while others may cover drugs that Medicare Part D won’t pay for.
States set their own rules, so eligibility requirements vary. But income and assets are likely factors in determining whether you can benefit from the program.
How to apply: The Medicare website has a SPAP tool you can use to see if your state has such a program, to check eligibility requirements and to get contact information.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
Formerly known as food stamps, SNAP helps people with limited resources buy meat, vegetables, fruits, dairy products, nonalcoholic beverages and other eligible items. Qualifying participants receive an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card that works like a debit card. Benefits are loaded onto the card account each month.
Eligibility for SNAP, and the level of benefits for those who qualify, depends on your loved one’s assets, expenses and how many people live in their household. For example, for a two-person household applying for SNAP between Oct. 1, 2021, and Sept. 30, 2022, the gross monthly income can’t exceed $1,888. In addition, SNAP households can’t have more than $2,500 in countable resources.
There are more lenient rules, such as higher countable resource limits, for households that include people 60 and older. The Food and Nutrition Service, the arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that oversees SNAP, has FAQs about eligibility.
The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)
This federal program provides low-income Americans with free emergency food assistance. Also run by the USDA, TEFAP is implemented through state distributing agencies such as food banks and soup kitchens. Foods like meat, vegetables, fruits and cheese are available through the program.
The amount of food each state receives is determined by its poverty and unemployment rates. Eligibility requirements differ by state, but applicants typically must prove limited income and resources.
How to apply: Contact your state distributing agency.
Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP)
This USDA program provides low-income older adults with coupons they can use to purchase locally grown fruits, vegetables, herbs and honey at farmers markets and other community-supported agriculture programs.
Currently operating in 57 states, territories and Native American nations, the program aims to help older people attain nutritious food while supporting the growth of community agricultural programs.
To be eligible, you must be 60 or older and your household income can’t exceed 185 percent of the federal poverty level (or $33,874 annually for a household of two in 2022).
How to apply: Once you find out if your state operates a SFMNP, contact the relevant state agency to apply.
Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP)
Another USDA program designed to supplement the diets of older adults, the CSFP provides monthly food packages that include products such as milk, juice, pasta, rice, beans, and canned meat and fish.
To be eligible, you must be at least 60 and your income cannot exceed a state-set limit; these vary but none exceeds 130 percent of the federal poverty level. Some states may also require that recipients be deemed to be at nutritional risk by a doctor or local agency.
How to apply: To find out the requirements for your state and to apply, contact your state’s CSFP office.
Help with housing costs
Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8)
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offers Section 8 vouchers to help older, disabled and low-income people attain affordable housing.
Eligible families receive vouchers to find housing from participating landlords. A local public housing agency (PHA) pays a HUD-funded subsidy to the landlord on behalf of the family, who covers the difference between the rent and the subsidy. Typically, the family’s share is around 30 percent of their monthly adjusted gross income, but it can be more if the home’s listed rent is above a payment standard set by the PHA based on rents in the local market.
To qualify for Section 8, a family cannot have income that exceeds 50 percent of the median income for the county or metropolitan area where they live. Most vouchers go to families whose income is below 30 percent of the local standard.
How to apply: Contact your local public housing agency. HUD offers a list of PHAs by state.
Disability housing grants for veterans
Former service members who need a wheelchair ramp or other home renovation due to a service-connected disability may qualify for a VA grant to help with the costs so they can stay in their homes. There are three types.
- The Specially Adapted Housing Grant (SAH) provides up to $101,754 to buy, build or change a permanent home (one you plan to live in for a long time).
- The Special Home Adaptation Grant (SHA) provides up to $20,387 for similar projects.
- The Temporary Residence Adaptation Grant (TRA) provides up to $40,983 to adapt a family member’s house if you have to stay with them on a short-term basis.
To be eligible, a veteran must have been honorably discharged and have a permanent disability. There are also requirements surrounding the extent of the disability and the veteran’s ability to get around.
Help with utility bills
Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
Cold temperatures in the winter and hot temperatures in the summer can pose health and safety risks for Americans who can’t afford to pay their energy bills. LIHEAP, overseen by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), helps eligible families manage their energy costs and obtain energy-related minor home repairs.The program is run by the states, which determine eligibility. Income and household size are typically the most important factors. Low-income households with older adults and people with disabilities receive priority status.
How to apply: Contact the agency in your state or tribe that manages LIHEAP. You can also call HHS’ National Energy Assistance Referral (NEAR) hotline at 866-674-6327 to learn more about the specifics in your area.
Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP)
The WAP provides families with financial help for weatherization improvements to make their homes more energy-efficient and thus less expensive to heat and cool. Participating households save $372 or more per year, on average, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which runs the program.
To qualify, you must have household income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or your household must receive SSI or Aid to Families with Dependent Children. States may have additional requirements. While any household can apply, priority is given to those with older or disabled members and to families with children.
How to apply: The DOE website has a guide to the application process with a directory of state weatherization contacts.
People who are enrolled in Medicaid, SSI, SNAP or Section 8 or who are receiving VA pension or survivor benefits automatically qualify for this federal program, which provides monthly discounts on internet, phone or bundled services from participating providers. You may also be eligible if your income is 135 percent or less of the federal poverty level.
How to apply: Use the Federal Communications Commission’s online verifier to make sure you or your loved one qualifies for Lifeline, then sign up with a company near you that offers it. You can also ask a current provider to apply the benefit to an existing phone or broadband service.
Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.–based writer and editor. She has written extensively about money, entrepreneurship and careers for more than two decades. Her work has appeared in such publications as USA Today, Working Mother and Essence.