For older adults, benefits often go unused
Many programs target older adults with extremely low incomes and minimal assets. But that isn’t always the case: Programs funded by the Older Americans Act, such as home-delivered meals and legal assistance for those facing home foreclosures or eviction, don’t require a means test, although people with low incomes are often prioritized. And some local programs, such as property tax breaks for homeowners, are available to anyone 65 or older.
Even a few hundred dollars in assistance monthly can make a world of difference to older adults living on limited incomes that make it difficult to afford basics such as food, housing, transportation and health care. But people often don’t know how to find out about benefits and whether they qualify. And older adults are often reluctant to seek help, especially if they’ve never done so before.
“You’ve earned these benefits,” Hodges said, and older adults should think of them “like their Medicare, like their Social Security.”
Here’s how to get started and some information about a few programs:
Assessments identify which federal, state and local programs can assist with various needs — food, housing, transportation, health care, utility costs and other essential items. Often, staffers at the agency will help older adults fill out application forms and gather necessary documentation.
A common mistake is waiting until a crisis hits, and there’s no food in the refrigerator or the power company is about to turn off the electricity.
Aid with food expenses
To combat the stigma that some older adults attach to food stamps, AARP has launched a marketing campaign in Atlanta and Houston explaining that “food prices are rising and we’re all trying to stretch our grocery budgets,” said Nicole Heckman, vice president of benefit access programs at the AARP Foundation.
If the effort alters older Americans’ perception of the program and increases enrollment, AARP plans to do a major expansion next year, she said.
Aid with health care expenses
AARP also is working closely with community organizations in South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi that help older adults apply for Medicare Savings Programs and low-income subsidies for Part D prescription drug plans. It plans to expand this program next year to as many as 22 states.
The value of these health care benefits, targeted at low-income older adults, is substantial. At a minimum, Medicare Savings Programs will cover the cost of Medicare’s Part B premiums: $170 a month or $2,040 annually, for most. For older adults with the lowest incomes, benefits are even broader, with cost sharing for medical services also covered.
Other kinds of assistance
Be sure to check out property tax relief programs for older adults in your area as part of a broader “benefits checkup” process.
Barriers to getting help
Advocates for many programs note that agencies serving older adults are facing staff shortages, which are complicating the efforts to provide assistance. Low pay is a commonly cited reason. For example, 41% of Area Agencies on Aging report staff vacancies of up to 15%, while an additional 18% report vacancies up to 25%, according to Markwood. Also, agencies have lost significant numbers of volunteers during the Covid-19 pandemic.
At the same time, demand for help has risen, and clients’ needs have become more complex because of the pandemic and growing inflation.
“All of this is being amplified by the financial strains older adults are feeling,” Markwood said.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.