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Help for Seniors: Your Guide to Assistance Programs & Services

By Publisher
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Did you know there are literally thousands of programs that provide help for seniors in America? Whether you are struggling with the cost of housing or home repairs, looking for ways to save on prescriptions or hearing aids, or seeking affordable legal guidance, you can probably find senior citizens assistance programs that are designed to address needs like yours. In fact, the range of available services is so vast that the biggest challenge might be identifying the options that work best for your particular situation.

A good starting point in any search for senior assistance options is to check with your local Area Agency on Aging or use the online Eldercare Locator provided by the U.S. Administration on Aging. Either method can direct you to a host of services for older adults in your area. The directory of resources at the end of this article includes many more sites that can help you find the benefits and programs that are most applicable to you.

The following sections provide information on the many different resources that are available to help older adults meet their needs and improve their quality of life. Check out specific information about 11 different topics, or use the directory of resources to track down additional assistance.

Income and Tax Help for Seniors

According to the National Council on Aging, more than 15 million Americans aged 65+ live below the federal poverty line. There are also millions of other seniors with low or moderate incomes who are technically above the poverty line but still struggle to pay their bills each month. Fortunately, there are programs that can help older adults who are facing income or tax challenges.

Social Security

Social Security is a federal government insurance program that offers a source of income to those who qualify. In addition to retirement income, the program also offers death and survivorship benefits as well as help for seniors with disabilities.

Social Security is funded by Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) taxes that come off of most workers' paychecks. While you work, you pay a percentage of your income to support the program. When you retire, the maximum amount of benefit you receive is calculated based on the average of the 35 years in which you earned the most income.

For each year you work, you earn credits toward your eligibility for benefits. You get one credit for every $1,300 you earn, to a maximum of four credits per year. In most cases, you need 40 credits to be eligible for benefits, which means you need to have worked for at least 10 years. However, spouses can receive benefits even if they have not met that threshold.

You can begin receiving retirement benefits between ages 62 and 70. The longer you wait to apply for benefits, the more you will be entitled to receive. It's important to note that the amount you initially receive becomes the base for the amount you will continue to receive for the rest of your life.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

The Supplemental Security Income is a government assistance program that provides help for low-income seniors in the form of monthly cash payouts to cover basic costs related to food, shelter, and clothing. SSI benefits provide help for blind seniors, disabled seniors, and those over 65 who have limited income and resources. As of January 2018, the maximum monthly payout under SSI will be $750 for an individual and $1,125 for a couple.

The SSI program is run by the Social Security Administration, and when you apply for SSI you are also applying for Social Security benefits. However, SSI is actually a separate program and is not funded by Social Security taxes. That means, unlike Social Security benefits, SSI benefits are not based on your work history.

State Supplemental Income Program

Additional financial help for seniors with low income is available in many areas. Most states (except for North Dakota, Arizona, Mississippi, and West Virginia) provide supplemental payments to people receiving SSI benefits. Each state has its own rules about who is eligible and how much they are entitled to receive. Supplement amounts often depend on a person's marital status and whether he or she is living independently, receiving home care, or residing in a nursing home or assisted living facility.

In some states, the supplemental program is run by the federal Social Security Administration, so an application for SSI benefits is also an application for the state supplement. Other states have their own agencies that run the supplemental program, which means you'll have to apply directly with that agency in order to receive the additional benefit.

Tax help

Smiling tax advisor consulting with elderly couple

Some provisions of the federal tax code provide special benefits for senior citizens. For instance, you qualify for a higher standard deduction amount if you are 65 or older and you don't itemize deductions. Also, if you're over 65 or you retired on permanent disability, you may be able to claim the Credit for the Elderly or Disabled, which can lower the amount of tax you have to pay. (Note that your income must be within a certain limit.) The credit ranges from $3,750 to $7,500.

In many states, senior or disabled homeowners can qualify for a property tax discount, exemption, or deferral. Age and income requirements vary widely between jurisdictions, as do the specific benefits available, so check with your county or state tax division to see what applies in your area.

There are also a couple of programs that offer free tax help for seniors. People aged 60 or older can get no-charge tax advice from IRS-trained volunteers through the Tax Counseling for the Elderly program. These volunteers can help answer questions related to senior-specific issues such as pensions and retirement benefits. And older taxpayers who need help with actually putting their tax returns together can take advantage of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, which offers free tax-prep services.

Medicare and Prescription Help for Seniors

Medicare is a federal health insurance program for people 65 or older, those who are disabled, or those who have end-stage renal disease. It does not pay the full cost of services; you will still have deductibles and copayments. Medicare has four parts:

  • Part A helps pay for inpatient care at hospitals and some unskilled nursing facilities, as well as hospice care and some home health care. Part A satisfies the legal requirement for everyone to have health coverage. You can get Part A for free at age 65 if you have the 40 credits required to qualify for Social Security benefits. You can also get it for free based on the work record of a current, former, or deceased spouse. If you have less than 40 work credits, you must pay a monthly premium between $227 and $413 for Part A—and if you choose to buy Part A, you must also enroll in and pay for Part B (see below).
  • Part B helps pay for doctors' visits, outpatient care, lab tests, and physical and occupational therapy. Most medications that are administered in a doctor's office are also covered. Part B is optional, and you must pay a monthly premium to get it. The standard cost of this premium is $137, but people who receive Social Security benefits pay less ($109, on average). Taken together, Part A and Part B are known as original or traditional Medicare.
  • Part C (commonly known as Medicare Advantage) allows health maintenance organizations (HMOs) and preferred provider organizations (PPOs) to offer health insurance to people who are enrolled in Part A and Part B. These plans cover all the same things as Parts A and B but also typically feature additional benefits like vision and dental care as well as Part D prescription drug coverage (see below). Companies often limit you to doctors within their networks. Medicare Advantage plans require a monthly premium, and you must also pay the Part B premium. However, these plans do limit the amount of out-of-pocket costs you must pay each year.
  • Part D helps with the cost of prescription drugs. This coverage is only available through private companies. You can choose a stand-alone plan called a Medicare Prescription Drug Plan (PDP) or opt for a Medicare Advantage plan that bundles Parts A, B, and D together. Either way, you will pay a monthly premium. The specific drugs that are covered vary with each plan, and there may be other restrictions, so be sure you understand the details before making your choice.

It is possible to receive Medicare benefits if you are under 65. For instance, you can get Part A for free if you are under 65 but have been receiving Social Security disability benefits for at least two years. And if you receive Social Security benefits for at least four months before becoming eligible for Medicare, you are automatically enrolled in Part A (which you get for free) and Part B (which you can opt to either keep or refuse).

But what if you can't afford the premiums and other costs associated with Medicare? Help for seniors with low incomes is available through a number of programs:

  • The Qualified Medicare Beneficiary (QMB) Program covers both Part A and B premiums along with deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance. To qualify, you must have limited resources (not counting your home, your furniture, one car, or a few other items) and a monthly income below a certain level.
  • The Specified Low-Income Medicare Beneficiary (SLMB) Program covers only Part B premiums. Income limits are slightly higher than with QMB, but the resource limits are the same.
  • The Qualifying Individual (QI) Program only helps pay for Part B premiums and is not open to those who qualify for Medicaid. It has slightly higher income limits than the SLMB program, but the same resource limits.
  • The Qualified Disabled and Working Individuals (QDWI) Program covers the Part A premium only and is not open to those receiving Medicaid. You may qualify for QDWI if you are under 65, have a disability, are still working, and lost your free Part A when you went back to work. QDWI also has income and resource limits, though these differ from the other programs.
  • Medicaid is additional financial assistance that helps low-income Americans of any age with medical costs. It offers benefits like personal care services and nursing home care, which Medicare does not cover; it also pays for most prescription drug costs. Medicaid is administered by each state, so eligibility requirements vary depending on where you live. Contact your state Medicaid program for details. For those who qualify, a small copayment for medications is typically required. Those receiving Supplemental Security Income benefits automatically qualify for Medicaid.

If you have Medicaid, or if you qualify for the QMB, SLMB, or QI programs, you automatically qualify for the Extra Help program that provides prescription help for seniors on Medicare. Under this program, depending on your resources and income level, you may get either full or partial help with the cost of your medications.

Other ways to get help with prescription drug costs

  • Many pharmaceutical companies offer patient assistance programs (PAPs) to help seniors who can't otherwise afford their medications. Check with your pharmacist or doctor, or search online at RxAssist.
  • The Medicine Assistance Tool matches people with medication assistance programs they may be eligible for.
  • You can search for State Pharmaceutical Assistance Programs through the Medicare website. Eligibility requirements and coverage details vary, so check with your state's health department for details.
  • Prescription discount cards are also available from non-profit organizations like NeedyMeds and the National Council on Aging.

Hearing Aid Help for Seniors

According to a 2016 study in JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, hearing loss affects more than 60 percent of adults over age 70, yet only 20 percent of adults who need hearing aids actually use them. Price is the most common roadblock: The devices can cost thousands of dollars each, and most seniors need two of them. But there are ways to get help with those costs.

While original Medicare (i.e., Parts A and B) does not cover hearing aids or the exams required to fit them, some Medicare Advantage plans do, so talk to your insurance provider. In some states, Medicaid will also pay for hearing aids.

Lions Clubs across the U.S. offer the Affordable Hearing Aid Project, which helps seniors with limited incomes access hearing aids that they would otherwise be unable to afford. The program also arranges for the fitting and follow-up care. Each club has its own income guidelines for determining who qualifies, so check around.

The National Hearing Aid Project supplies hearing aids to low-income U.S. residents who lack insurance coverage for the devices. Qualified individuals receive a hearing assessment, a fitting, and a follow-up. Those who receive hearing aids through the program are asked to share their story on a personal fundraising page in order to encourage others to donate to the program.

Hear Now is a national program run by the Starkey Hearing Foundation that helps low-income seniors acquire digital hearing aids. There is a fee of $125 per hearing aid for those who meet the income requirements. (The Hear Now Program is currently suspended due to COVID-19. Applications are not currently accepted.)

Help America Hear provides hearing aids to financially challenged Americans who have exhausted all other resources. Qualified recipients pay an application fee per hearing aid. The fee amount depends on income level, and the hearing assessment is not covered.

The Miracle-Ear Foundation is another possible source of hearing aids for seniors who have significantly limited financial resources. The program has a nonrefundable application fee of $150; if you are accepted, there are no further costs.

Another option is to contact hearing aid manufacturers to ask about participating in a clinical trial. Trial participants generally get to keep the products they test.

Mobility Aid Help for Seniors

Being able to move around inside your home or out in your community is essential for maintaining independence. Older adults are increasingly relying on devices like canes, walkers, and motorized scooters to help them stay mobile. In fact, according to a study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, around a quarter of Americans over age 65 use mobility aids, and a third of those use more than one type of device.

Canes and walkers are relatively inexpensive, ranging from about $15 for a basic cane to $150 for a deluxe rollator walker. Manual wheelchairs can cost anywhere from $100 to $750. And electric scooters and power wheelchairs typically cost well over $1,000.

Medicare Part B can help cover the cost of mobility aids if a qualified healthcare provider determines that such items are medically necessary for you to move around inside your home. So, for instance, if you have a health condition that impairs your mobility within your home, and that condition can't be helped with a cane or a walker, you may be approved for a manual wheelchair. If you lack the strength to operate a manual wheelchair, you may receive approval for an electric scooter.

If your claim is approved, Medicare will cover 80 percent of the cost. If you have supplemental insurance, the other 20 percent may be covered as well.

Dental Help for Seniors

Taking proper care of teeth and gums is a key part of staying healthy. Research has shown that poor oral health can increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and pneumonia. Aging adults are increasingly prone to a range of dental problems, from dry mouth and root decay to tooth loss and oral cancer. Such issues can negatively affect seniors' quality of life.

The good news is that dental help for low-income seniors is available. Most states provide emergency dental benefits through their Medicaid programs, and some even provide comprehensive coverage. (Original Medicare does not cover routine senior dental care such as exams, cleanings, and fillings, though some Medicare Advantage plans do provide dental benefits.)

Your local Area Agency on Aging office, public health department, or state dental association may be able to point you toward free dental programs for seniors in your region. Dental schools with student clinics can be another good source of reduced-cost dental care.

Free or low-cost clinics can be found in many states. Some have income limit requirements, but many will accept patients of any income level, though you may be charged a fee relative to what you can afford. You can search for clinics in your area through NeedyMeds.

The Donated Dental Services program from the Dental Lifeline Network provides free help for seniors who can't afford dental treatment and are ineligible for state assistance. The program has thousands of dentists across the country volunteering to help seniors with their oral care needs. You may qualify if you are over 65, disabled, or medically fragile.

Senior Housing Assistance and Rental Help

Finding affordable housing can be a major challenge for older Americans. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offers a number of programs that provide rent help for seniors and are designed to help low-income people secure decent and safe housing.

  • Public housing: State-owned rental housing is available to low-income individuals as well as seniors and the disabled. HUD gives funding to local public housing authorities (PHAs) that actually own and manage the housing, which could be anything from single family homes to multi-unit apartment buildings. Qualified tenants pay no more than 30 percent of their income toward the rent. Eligibility is based on income limits, but these vary by area, so it's worth checking around.
  • Housing Choice Vouchers Program: Under this program (formerly known as Section 8), older adults and those with disabilities are free to find their own housing in the private market, but that housing must meet health and safety standards and the owner must agree to rent under the program. The landlord receives a subsidy from the PHA and the tenant covers the rest of the rent; as with public housing, tenants typically pay no more than 30 percent of their monthly income. The local PHA determines who is eligible for a voucher.
  • Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly: This senior citizen rent assistance program is the only HUD program that provides housing options specifically for elderly Americans. The rent-reduced units that are available through Section 202 include things like non-skid floors and grab bars to help physically challenged seniors stay safe; meals and housekeeping services are also available. To qualify, you must be 62 or older with very low household income. (The average yearly income of participants is around $10,000.)

It's important to note that demand for government-assisted housing far outstrips supply. Wait lists of two to five years or more are not uncommon, so try to plan ahead as far as possible.

Mortgage Assistance

Is your mortgage owned by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac? If so, one possibility for senior citizen mortgage assistance is either Fannie Mae's High Loan-to-Value Refinance Option or Freddie Mac's Enhanced Relief Refinance Mortgage. If you don't have much equity in your home and you owe as much or more on your mortgage than your home is currently worth, you may be able to refinance under one of these programs and get a lower interest rate or a shorter-term loan. To qualify, you must be current on your payments, and your loan-to-value ratio must meet a minimum threshold.

A reverse mortgage can provide financial help for seniors on fixed incomes or limited incomes who have built up significant equity in their homes. With a reverse mortgage, you borrow against the value of your home and receive either a one-time sum or a series of monthly payments. You retain ownership of the home and can use the money for any expenses; you can even use it to pay the remaining balance on your traditional mortgage. The loan does not have to be repaid until you move out or pass away. Keep in mind that the loan does become due if you live anywhere else, such as in a care facility, for a 12-month period. You have to be at least 62 to qualify for a reverse mortgage.

Help for Seniors With Home Repairs, Improvements, and Modifications

The vast majority of seniors want to stay in their own homes as long as possible. But every home needs regular maintenance and upkeep, and as people age they may require adaptations in their homes to accommodate their changing needs. Finding the money for changes and repairs can be challenging, but there are many different senior assistance programs that can help.

Local and state programs

Every state has at least one Area Agency on Aging (AAA) office that can help older residents with a range of needs, including home modifications and repairs. The office should be able to help you find services that may be offered for free or on a sliding scale; they could include anything from replacing roofs and hot water tanks to installing wheelchair ramps and grab bars. You must be at least 60 years old to be eligible; income limits also apply.

Charities and non-profit organizations often provide free or low-cost home repair services to seniors. You may also be able to find volunteer home repair services in your area through a simple Internet search.

Loans, grants, and waivers

Another option is to get a federally insured loan (known as a Title I loan) to help with the cost of repairs and modifications. These low-interest loans are offered by private banks and lenders but insured by the Federal Housing Administration, making them more accessible to people who might not otherwise qualify for credit.

Additional help for seniors' home repairs is available through the federal government's Very Low-Income Housing Repair Program (also known as Section 504). The program provides loans of up to $20,000 (which must be repaid) and grants of up to $7,500 (which do not need to be repaid) to fix safety and health hazards in the homes of very low-income seniors. To qualify, you must be over age 62, have an income below a certain limit, live in an eligible area, and be unable to get affordable credit anywhere else.

Home modification help for disabled seniors who served in the armed forces is also available. Disabled veterans may qualify for special grants to cover the cost of home modifications that are deemed to be medically necessary. For instance, the Home Improvements and Structural Alterations (HISA) grant can be used to pay for things like handrails and roll-in showers. The disability doesn't have to be service-related, but a Veterans Affairs doctor must stipulate that the modification is necessary.

In many states, a low-income senior who qualifies for Medicaid can get Home & Community-Based Services (HCBS) waivers that cover the cost of home modifications that boost the person's ability to live independently. (Note that Medicare does not pay for home modifications, though in some cases it will pay for the services of an occupational therapist who can assess a home and decide what changes are needed.)

Home improvement help

Seniors can also get help with home improvements that enable them to save on utility costs. The Weatherization Assistance Program helps low-income seniors lower their bills by making their homes more energy efficient. And the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is designed to help people deal with the costs related to heating, cooling, and weatherizing their homes. LIHEAP benefits differ by state: Some only provide help with monthly energy bills, while others also allow qualified participants to use the funds to fix things like leaky windows or broken air conditioners. Be sure to check what's available in your area.

In-Home Help for Seniors

Household chores like cooking and cleaning get increasingly challenging as people get older, and even basic tasks like bathing, dressing, or using the toilet can become problematic. Household help for seniors living alone or with others can keep older adults in familiar surroundings and allow them to maintain their independence for as long as possible.

Home care

Home care services can provide the level of care that seniors need to remain safe and comfortable in their own homes. Older adults who need assistance getting to appointments, attending to personal hygiene, or remembering to take medications can hire a provider to help serve those needs.

The Home Care Association of America offers a searchable directory of caregivers across the U.S. who provide in-home housekeeping, meal preparation, and personal care services (which could include help with dressing, bathing, or toileting). Costs depend on the type of service required.

Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE)

PACE is a Medicare program that provides community-based care and services to seniors over 55 who qualify for care at the nursing home level. It covers home health care, meals, prescription drugs, dental care, hospital visits, transportation, and more. The vast majority of participants are able to continue living in their own communities.

Participants must be enrolled in Medicare or Medicaid and must live in one of the PACE service areas, which are currently spread across 31 states. Those who are Medicaid-eligible do not pay a monthly premium; those who don't have Medicaid pay a monthly premium but don't have copayments or deductibles.

Live-in help

Live-in help for seniors who require around-the-clock care is also available and can be an appealing alternative to assisted living. Some caregivers live in the senior's home full time and do not maintain a separate residence; others keep a home of their own and alternate shifts at the senior's home with a second caregiver.

Live-in caregivers can provide companionship and help with personal needs like toileting and dressing. They typically prepare meals, run errands, do laundry, perform light housekeeping, and drive the senior to and from doctor's appointments and social activities.

Costs vary widely depending on the type of services that are needed. Seniors who are able to give their caregiver free room and board and access to a vehicle can reduce the amount they need to pay in wages.

Downsizing Help for Seniors

Moving can be a stressful experience at any time, but when you're an older adult who is moving into a smaller residence, it can be especially daunting. Many seniors haven't moved in 40 or 50 years; sorting through decades of accumulated possessions and deciding what to do with each and every item can be both a major challenge and an emotional ordeal.

Older adults and their families can get help with the process from downsizing experts known as senior move managers or senior relocation specialists. Services vary, but they typically include measuring the new space and developing a floor plan, sorting and organizing belongings, arranging for the sale or donation of unwanted items, scheduling movers, and unpacking in the new home. Some will help with downsizing the clutter in a home even if the senior isn't actually moving.

Some of these service providers offer packages at a fixed price, but most charge by the hour. Fees range from $40 to $125 per hour depending on the specific services and the geographic location. Always ask for a written estimate and be sure you understand exactly what you are paying for.

The National Association of Senior Move Managers (NASMM) is a non-profit organization that requires its members to carry liability insurance and abide by a professional code of ethics. You can search for a NASMM member in your area and even get a list of questions to ask a possible service provider.

Another option is to look for a Certified Relocation & Transition Specialist (CRTS). This designation is offered under the auspices of the National Certification Board for Alzheimer and Aging Care and recognizes professionals in senior move management and transition services.

It's critical for seniors to be able to access legal guidance. Many older Americans require professional help with issues like estate planning, power of attorney directives, foreclosures or evictions, identity theft, and age discrimination. But the costs involved can be prohibitive to many seniors living on fixed incomes. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to get affordable legal assistance.

The Legal Services Corporation distributes federal grants to legal aid organizations that provide civil legal services to low-income Americans of any age. Legal aid practices typically focus on cases involving housing, discrimination, and denial of government benefits. Income limits vary among different communities; be sure to check the details in your area.

Seniors who run into legal issues with their pensions or retirement savings plans can get no-charge assistance from the Pension Counseling and Information Program offered by the U.S. Administration on Aging. Counselors can explain pension laws, track down and claim benefits that have been denied, and provide referrals to other professionals as needed. Services are available to anyone, regardless of age or income.

In many states, free legal services are available through various non-profit organizations. They can help those in the 60-plus population and handle many types of cases, from guardianship and elder abuse to Medicaid issues and debt collections.

Technology Help for Seniors

Many seniors are insecure about their technological prowess. In fact, in a Pew Research Center survey, only 26 percent of Internet users over age 65 said they felt very confident when it came to using smartphones and computers. And almost three-quarters of the 65-plus crowd said they needed other people to show them how to use a new electronic device. But there are plenty of ways that seniors can expand their technological skills.

SeniorNet provides computer help for seniors over 55. It's a non-profit organization that offers computer and Internet training in learning centers all over the country. Courses cover topics like how to use tablets, send email, download applications, and take digital photos. A yearly membership fee is required.

TechBoomers is a free website that teaches older adults how to navigate and use popular sites related to education, shopping, entertainment, and social media. Tutorials are aimed at those with basic computer skills.

Free technology training workshops are also available from AARP TEK. Topics focus on the use of smartphones and tablets. You don't have to be an AARP member to take advantage of these workshops; they are open to everyone.

An Essential Directory of Helpful Resources for Seniors

These websites can help older adults navigate the thousands of assistance options that are available: