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How to Find Public Benefits for Caregivers

Lifelines for financial help

Welcome to the New Year! Many of us have begun 2009 with the typical resolutions: Eat better, exercise more, get more sleep. But I believe there is one common denominator on everyone's list this year: Be smarter with money and survive this financial crisis.

The downturn has us all worried. We are worried for ourselves; we are worried for our parents and loved ones. Given the scope of the economic collapse, everyone is being challenged on the financial front: Will I keep my job? Can I afford to retire? How will I afford rising health care costs? Is my housing situation at risk?

These questions are causing anxiety in households all across America. But there they are, and we must find a balanced way to address them. The federal government is working hard to improve the economic climate and provide relief for consumers, but significant challenges will remain for some time.

Perhaps you have parents or loved ones who are finding it difficult to keep their heads above water in these choppy seas. I'm here to remind you that there are a host of public benefits available to provide a lifeline for those who qualify for financial help.

First, you need to talk to your parents about their financial situation. While some may be hesitant to talk about their "business" with you, it is important to assess their current circumstances. Think about starting the conversation with those famous "I" statements that I mentioned in an earlier column: "Mom, Dad—I'm worried that today's economy could be giving you serious troubles."

Most older adults receive Social Security, so that is generally a good way to continue the conversation. "How much is your current Social Security benefit check?" is an easily understood topic for people age 65+, because nearly everyone receives this public benefit.

Once you have a clear picture of your parents' financial circumstances, you can match up their needs with existing federal, state, and local programs that help older adults who need assistance. If you know someone who is having a difficult time paying for basic needs, such as health care, food, or utilities, below are the types of questions you might be hearing.

"My health care costs keep going up! Are there any programs to help?" 

Medicare is a national health-insurance program that helps people age 65+, and some younger people with disabilities, pay for their health care. In has several parts that cover:

  • Hospital care, limited nursing home, and home-health care (Part A)
  • Doctors' services and outpatient-hospital care (Part B)
  • Health coverage and prescription drugs through a plan (like an HMO)
  • Prescription drug benefits, although there are exceptions (Part D)
  • For more information, click here.

Medicare Part D "Extra Help" Program assists people with Medicare who have limited incomes and assets to pay for most of their Medicare Part D premiums, copayments, and deductibles. It also provides continuous drug coverage throughout the year. To apply, you can use Social Security's online application.

Medicaid, a federal and state health insurance program, assists people with limited resources. Some who may be eligible for Medicaid include disabled or older individuals, and, in some cases, grandparents taking care of grandchildren. Each state designs and runs its own program, so eligibility criteria and covered services vary. Call your local department of social or human services, or click here.

Medicaid Savings Programs can help your parents or loved ones pay out-of-pocket Medicare costs if they have limited income and assets. Click here to learn more.

"Money is really tight! How do I make sure that my Social Security check is right?"

Social Security, a national program, provides monthly income to people starting at age 62 or those who become disabled and meet strict disability and work eligibility requirements. To receive retirement benefits, you must have paid Social Security retirement taxes for at least 10 years or meet other specific requirements. To apply, visit your parents' local Social Security office or click here.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) pays monthly income benefits to people age 65 and over, as well as to the blind or disabled if they have limited resources. People may receive both Social Security and SSI payments if they meet the requirements. Click here for more information.

"I can't afford my groceries. What can I do?"

Food Stamps help people with limited resources to buy food. They are free and come in the form of coupons or an electronic-benefit card that looks like a credit card. How much the applicant receives depends on his or her assets, expenses, and how many people live in the applicant’s household. To apply, go to your local department of social or human services, or click here.

"I'm having trouble paying my heating bills this winter, and my house is really drafty! Is there any relief for a homeowner like me?"

The Low-Income Energy Assistance Program helps people who cannot afford to pay their heating and cooling bills and provides money to help weatherize homes to make them more energy efficient. Click here to learn more.

Remember, the programs described above provide real dollars for your parents or loved ones to help them make ends meet, so digging in and learning if they qualify for assistance are true labors of love. And AARP makes it easy by providing tools to help you learn more and even apply for the programs. We keep the information in a convenient place on our Web site. Visit our Benefits QuickLink on the AARP Real Relief page to find out about programs that can dramatically improve your parents' or loved ones' quality of life.

Public benefits provide a social-safety net to help people who need it, and especially during these tough financial times, participating in these programs can be a lifesaver. The magnitude of the current economic decline has battered consumers on every front, so many who had made plans and were confident about their future financial security have now been shaken. Social-safety-net programs provide a financial shot-in-the-arm for your loved ones and will relieve financial pressure on you to intervene and support them with your own assets.

It is important to remember that caregiving is not about taking control; it's about helping those you care about make decisions to improve their living circumstances. The multitude of programs listed above can supplement your loved ones' household budget and reduce their anxiety about the future. We are all looking forward to the day when we are all better off!

Comparisons of the current economic recession with the Great Depression remind us of how serious our circumstances are. In that era, policymakers established several social-safety-net programs, and others were added later in the century. These programs are our 20th-century legacy that we, as 21st-century caregivers, should use to ensure that our family members age with dignity and independence.

All the best,

Elinor Ginzler

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