Savvy Senior

By The Active Age | February 1, 2022

Social Security calculators can help you decide when to claim

Dear Savvy Senior,

Can you recommend some good resources that can help my wife and me determine the best claiming ages for maximizing our Social Security retirement benefits?

Just Turned 62

Dear 62,

Deciding when to start collecting your Social Security benefits is one of the most complicated and consequential decisions in retirement. The difference between a good decision and a poor one could cost you and your wife tens of thousands of dollars over your retirement, so doing your due diligence now is a very smart move.

 Factors to Consider

As you may already know, you can claim Social Security any time between the ages of 62 and 70, but each year you wait increases your benefits between 5 and 8 percent. However, there are other factors you need to take into account to help you make a good decision, like your health and family longevity, whether you plan to work in retirement, along with spousal and survivor benefits.

To help you weigh your claiming strategies, you need to know that Social Security Administration claims specialists are not trained or authorized to give you personal advice on when you should start drawing your benefits. They can only provide you information on how the system works under different circumstances. To get advice you’ll need to turn to other sources.

Online Tools

Your first step in getting Social Security claiming strategy advice is to go to SSA.gov/myaccount to get your personalized statement that estimates what your retirement benefits will be at ages 62 through 70. These estimates are based on your yearly earnings that are also listed on your report.

Once you get your estimates for both you and your wife, there are a number of online Social Security strategy calculators you can turn to that can compare your options so you can make an informed decision.

The best one that’s completely free to use is Open Social Security (OpenSocialSecurity.com), which runs the math for each possible claiming age (or, if you’re married, each possible combination of claiming ages) and reports back, telling you which strategy is expected to provide the most total spendable dollars over your lifetime.

But if you want a more thorough analysis consider fee-based calculators like Maximize My Social Security (MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com) or Social Security Solutions (SocialSecuritySolutions.com). Both of these tools, which are particularly helpful to married couples as well as divorced or widowed persons, will run what-if scenarios based on your circumstances and show how different filing strategies affect the total payout over the same time frame.

Maximize My Social Security’s web-based service costs $40 per year for a household, while Social Security Solutions offers several levels of web-based and personalized phone advice ranging from $20 to $250.

In-Person Advice

You may also be able to get help through a financial planner. Look for someone who is a fee-only certified financial planner (CFP) who charges on an hourly basis and has experience in Social Security analysis.

To find someone, use the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors online directory at NAPFA.org, or try the Garrett Planning Network (GarrettPlanningNetwork.com), which is a network of fee-only advisers that charge between $150 and $300 per hour.

How to help your overmedicated parent

Dear Savvy Senior, 

My 75-year-old mother is currently taking 16 different prescription and OTC medications and I’m worried she’s taking way too many drugs. Can you suggest any resources that can help us?

Worried Daughter

Dear Worried,

Unfortunately, millions of older Americans are taking way too many medications today, which raises their risk of dangerous side effects and drug interactions. 

Even when older patients are taking only necessary and effective drugs, the dosages need a second look. As patients age, they tend to metabolize drugs more slowly, meaning the dose that was perfect five years ago may now be too high, perhaps causing dizziness and falls. Doses need to be continually adjusted with age, and most of the time that doesn’t happen.

Get a Drug Review

If you have concerns or questions about the medications your mother is taking, gather up all her pill bottles, including her prescription and over-the-counter drugs as well as vitamins and supplements, put them in a bag, and take them to her primary physician or pharmacist for a comprehensive drug review.  

Medicare provides free drug reviews with a doctor during annual “wellness visits,” and many Medicare Part D prescription-drug beneficiaries can get free reviews from pharmacists, too. 

At the drug review, go through each medication and find out if there are any duplicate meds or dangerous combinations your mom is taking, and if there are any drugs she could stop taking or reduce the dosage. Then, make a medication master list and keep it updated so it can easily be shared whenever your mom sees a doctor. 

To help with this, AARP offers a free “my personal medication record” form that you can download and print at AARP-medical-record-form.pdffiller.com. Or, if your mom uses a smartphone, she can use a pill tracking app like Medisafe – Pill & Med Reminder (MyMedisafe.com).

Other Tips

If possible, your mom should also use a single pharmacy to fill all her prescriptions. The software that pharmacies use to manage patient prescriptions is designed to cross reference all medications a patient is taking to ensure that there are no drug interactions that could cause harm. 

Also, the next time your mom’s doctor prescribes a new medication, she should ask about nondrug treatment options that might be safer. If the drug is indeed necessary, she needs to find out how long she’s supposed to take it and the side effects it can cause.   

Another good resource that can help keep your mom safe is the American Geriatrics Society, which has identified 10 different types of medications that people 65 and older should almost always avoid because of the risk of serious side effects. They include the anti-anxiety drugs diazepam (Valium) and alprazolam (Xanax), and sleep drugs such as zolpidem (Ambien) and eszopiclone (Lunesta). To see the complete list, visit HealthInAging.org and search “10 medications older adults should avoid.” 

What to ponder before remarrying later in life 

Dear Savvy Senior,

What types of financial or legal snags should I be aware of when considering remarriage? I’m 62 years old and have been seeing a nice man for about a year. We’ve been talking about getting married, but I want to make sure I understand all the possible consequences beforehand. 

Divorced Widow

Dear Divorced,

Getting remarried later in life can actually bring about a host of financial and legal issues that are much more complicated than they are for younger couples just starting out. Here are some common problem areas you need to think about, and some tips that can help you solve them. 

Estate plan: Getting remarried can have a big effect on your estate plan. Even if your will leaves everything to your kids, in most states’ spouses are automatically entitled to a share of your estate – usually one-third to one-half. If you don’t want to leave a third or more of your assets to your new partner, get a prenuptial agreement where you both agree not to take anything from the other’s estate. If you do want to leave something to your spouse and ensure your heirs receive their inheritance, a trust is the best option.

Medical and long-term care: As a married couple, you and your husband will be responsible for each other’s medical and long-term care bills. This is one of the main reasons many older couples choose to live together instead of marrying. Staying unmarried lets you and your partner qualify individually for public benefits, such as Medicaid (which pays nursing home costs), without draining the other one’s resources. But, if you remarry and can afford it, consider getting a long-term care insurance policy to protect your assets. See AALTCI.org to help you find one. 

Home: If you’re planning on living in your house or vice versa, you also need to think about what will happen to the house when the owner dies. If, for example, you both decide to live in your home, but you want your kids to inherit the place after you die, putting the house in both names is not an option. But you may also not want your heirs to evict him once you die. One solution is for you to give your surviving husband a life estate, which gives him the right to live in your property during his lifetime. Then once he dies, the house will pass to your heirs.

Social Security, pension benefits and alimony are other payments that can be affected by marriage.

Deciphering Senior Housing Options

Dear Savvy Senior,
Can you decipher the different types of housing options available to seniors, and recommend some good resources for locating them? I need to find a place for my elderly mother and could use some help.
— Overwhelmed Daughter

Dear Overwhelmed,
There’s a wide array of housing options available to seniors, but what’s appropriate for your mom will depend on her needs and financial situation. Here’s a rundown of the different levels of senior housing and some resources to help you choose one.

Independent living: If your mom is in relatively good health and self-sufficient, “independent living communities” are a top option that can offer a sense of community. Typically available to people over age 55, this type of senior housing is usually apartments or town homes that are fully functional. In addition, many communities also offer amenities such as meals served in a common dining area, housekeeping, transportation and a variety of social activities.

To locate this type of housing, contact your Area Agency on Aging (call 800-677-1116 to get your local number), or use an online search tool like Caring.com. Most of these communities are private pay only and can vary greatly in cost ranging anywhere from $1,500 to $6,000 per month.

Assisted living: If your mom needs some help with daily living chores, she’ll probably need an “assisted living facility.” These facilities provide help with the activities of daily living – like bathing, dressing, eating, going to the bathroom – as needed, as well as meals, housekeeping, transportation, social activities and medication management. Many facilities also offer special “memory care units” for residents with dementia.

Costs for assisted living usually run between $3,000 and $6,000 per month depending on location and services needed. Most residents pay for assisted living from personal funds, while some have long-term care insurance policies. And many state Medicaid programs today also cover some assisted living costs for financially eligible residents.

Another similar, but less expensive option to look into is “board and care homes.” These offer many of the same services as assisted living facilities but in a much smaller home setting.

Your Area Aging Agency is again a good resource for finding assisted living facilities and board care homes, as is Caring.com.

Nursing homes: If your mom needs ongoing medical and personal care or has very limited mobility, a nursing home, which provides 24-hour skilled nursing care is the next option. To find a good one, use Medicare’s nursing home compare tool at Medicare.gov/care-compare. This tool will not only help you locate nursing homes in your area, it also provides a 5-star rating system on recent health inspections, staffing, quality of care, and overall rating.

But be aware that nursing home care is very expensive, costing anywhere between $4,500 and $13,000 per month for a semi-private room depending on where you live. Most residents pay from either personal funds, a long-term care insurance policy or through Medicaid after their savings are depleted.

Continuing-care retirement communities (CCRC’s): If your mom has the financial resources, a “CCRC” is another option that provides all levels of housing (independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing home care) in one convenient location. But these communities typically require a hefty entrance fee that can range from $20,000 to $500,000 or more, plus ongoing monthly service fees that vary from around $2,000 to over $4,000. To search for CCRC’s visit Caring.com.

Need Help?
If you’re not sure what your mom needs, consider hiring an aging life care expert (AgingLifeCare.org) who can assess your mom and find her appropriate housing for a fee – usually between $300 and $800. Or you can use a senior care advising service like A Place for Mom (APlaceForMom.com) for free. They get paid from the senior living facilities in their network.

How to Get Your Affairs in Order

Dear Savvy Senior,
I would like to get my personal, legal and financial information organized so my kids will know what’s going on when I’m no longer around. Can you offer any tips on the best way to do this?
— Unorganized Emma

Dear Emma,
Organizing your important papers and getting your personal and financial affairs in order is a smart idea and wonderful gift to your loved ones. Here are some tips to get you started.

Get Organized
The first step in getting your affairs in order is to gather up all your important personal, financial and legal information so you can arrange it in a format that will benefit you now, and your loved ones later.

Then you’ll need to sit down and create various lists of important information and instructions of how you want certain things handled when you die or if you become incapacitated. Here’s a checklist of areas you need to focus on.

PERSONAL INFORMATION
• Contacts: Make a master list of names and phone numbers of close friends, doctors, and professional advisers such as your lawyer, accountant, broker and insurance agent.
• Medical information: Include a list of medications you take, along with any allergies and illnesses.
• Personal documents: Include such items as your birth certificate, Social Security card, marriage license, military discharge papers, etc.
• Secured places: List all the places you keep under lock and key such as safe deposit boxes, safe combination, security alarms, etc.
• Digital assets: Make a list of all your digital assets, including everything from social media accounts to online banking accounts to home utilities that you manage online. It should include usernames and passwords. Use Rutgers Digital Assets Inventory Worksheet (njaes.rutgers.edu/money/pdfs/digital-assets-worksheet.pdf) as a guide.
• Pets: If you have a pet, give instructions for the care of the animal.
• End of life: Indicate your wishes for organ and tissue donation and write out your funeral instructions. If you’ve made pre-arrangements with a funeral home include a copy of agreement, their contact information and whether you’ve prepaid or not.

LEGAL DOCUMENTS
• Will, trust and estate plan: Include the original copy of your will and other estate planning documents you’ve made.
• Financial power of attorney: This document names someone you trust to handle money matters if you’re incapacitated.
• Advance health care directives: This includes a living will and medical power of attorney, which spell out your wishes regarding your end-of-life medical treatment when you can no longer make decisions for yourself.

FINANCIAL RECORDS
• Financial accounts: Make a list of all your bank accounts, brokerage and mutual fund accounts, and any other financial assets you have.
• Debts and liabilities: Make a list of any loans, leases or debts you have – mortgages owed, car loans, student loans, medical bills, credit card debts. Also, make a list of all credit and charge cards, including the card numbers and contact information.
• Company benefits: List any retirement plans, pensions or health benefits from your current or former employer including the contact information of the benefits administrator.
• Insurance: List the insurance policies you have (life, long-term care, home, auto, Medicare, Medigap, prescription drug, etc.) including the policy numbers, agents, and phone numbers.
• Property: List real estate, vehicles and other properties you own, rent or lease and include documents such as deeds, titles, and loan or lease agreements.
• Taxes: Include the location of your tax records and your tax preparer’s contact information.

Keep all your organized information and files together in one convenient location, ideally in a fireproof filing cabinet or safe in your home. Also be sure to review and update it every year, and don’t forget to tell your kids where they can find it.

If you need help, get a copy of “Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won’t Have To” at Nolo.com for $17.50 for the downloadable versions, or $20 for a printed copy.

How to Write a Loved Ones Obituary

Dear Savvy Senior,
Can you provide any tips on how to write an obituary? My dad, who has terminal cancer, has asked me to write his obituary, which will be published in the funeral program and run in our local newspaper.
— Not a Writer

Dear Not,
I’m very sorry to hear about your dad’s prognosis. Writing your dad’s obituary would be a nice way for you to honor him and sum up his life, not to mention avoiding any possible mistakes that sometimes occur when obituaries are hurriedly written at the time of death. Here’s what you should know, along with some tips and tools to help you write it.

Contact the Newspaper
Before you start writing your dad’s obituary, your first step is to check with the newspaper you want it to run in. Some newspapers have specific style guidelines or restrictions on length, some only accept obituaries directly from funeral homes, and some only publish obituaries written by newspaper staff members.

If your newspaper accepts family-written obits, find out if they have a template to guide you, or check with your dad’s chosen funeral provider. Most funeral homes provide forms for basic information and will write the full obituary for you as part of the services they provide.

You also need to be aware that most newspapers charge by the word, line or column inch to publish an obituary, so your cost will vary depending on your newspaper’s rate and the length of your obit – most range between 200 and 600 words.

Also note that many newspapers offer free public service death listings too, which only include the name of the person who died along with the date and location of death and brief details about the funeral or memorial service.

Obituary Contents
Depending on how detailed you want to be, the most basic information in an obituary usually would include your dad’s full name (and nickname if relevant), age, date of birth, date of death, where he was living when he died, significant other (alive or dead), and details of the funeral service (public or private). If public, include the date, time, and location of service.

Other relevant information you may also want to include: cause of death (optional); place of birth and his parents’ names; his other survivors including his children, other relatives, friends and pets and where they live; family members who preceded his death; high school and colleges he attended and degrees earned; his work history and military service; his hobbies, accomplishments and any awards he received; his church or religious affiliations; any clubs, civic and fraternal organizations he was members of; and any charities he feels strongly about that he would like people to donate to either in addition to or in lieu of flowers or other gifts. You’ll also need to include a photo of your dad.

Need Help?
If you need some help writing your dad’s obituary there are free online resources you can turn to like Legacy.com, which provides tips and articles at Legacy.com/advice/guide-to-writing-an-obituary. Or consider the 25-page e-book “Writing an Obituary in Four Easy Steps” available at DearPersonObits.com for $5. This guide will help you gather the details of your dad’s life so you can write an obituary that will reflect his personality and story.

Online Memorials
Many families today also choose to post their loved one’s obituaries online and create digital memorials. Some good sites that offer this are MyKeeper.com, GatheringUs.com and EverLoved.com, which provide a central location where family and friends can visit to share stories, memories and photos to celebrate your dad’s life.

Or, if your dad used Facebook, you could also turn his profile into a memorial (you’ll need to show proof of death) where family and friends can visit and share anytime.

Tax Breaks for Caregiver of Elderly Parents

Dear Savvy Senior,
Are there any tax breaks that you know of for family caregivers? I help financially support my 82-year-old mother and would like to find out if I can write any of these expenses off on my taxes.
— Supplemental Sam

Dear Sam,
There are actually several tax credits and deductions available to adult children who help look after their aging parents or other relatives. Here are some options along with the IRS requirements to help you determine if you’re eligible to receive them.

Tax Credit for Other Dependents
If your mom lives with you and you’re paying more than 50 percent of her living expenses (housing, food, utilities, health care, repairs, clothing, travel and other necessities), and her 2021 gross income was under $4,300, you can claim your mom as a dependent and get a nonrefundable tax credit of up to $500.

If you happen to split your mom’s expenses with other siblings, only one of you can claim your mom as a dependent, and that person must pay at least 10 percent of her support costs. This is called a “multiple support agreement.”

The IRS has an interactive tool that will help you determine if your mom qualifies as a dependent. Go to IRS.gov/help/ita, scroll down to “Credits,” and click on “Does My Child/Dependent Qualify for the Child Tax Credit or the Credit for Other Dependents?”

Medical Deductions
If you claim you mom as a dependent and you help pay her medical, dental and/or long-term care expenses, and weren’t reimbursed by insurance, you can deduct the expenses that are more than 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income (AGI).

So, for example, if your adjusted gross income is $80,000, anything beyond the first $6,000 of your mom’s medical bills – or 7.5 percent of your AGI – could be deductible on your return. So, if you paid $8,000 in medical bills for her, $2,000 of it could be deductible. You can also include your own medical expenses in calculating the total.

You should also know that your state might have a lower AGI threshold, which means you might get a break on your state income taxes even if you can’t get one on your federal income taxes.

To see which medical expenses you can and can’t deduct, see IRS Publication 502 at IRS.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p502.pdf.

Dependent Care Credit
If you’re paying for in-home care or adult day care for your mom so you are free to work, you might qualify for the Dependent Care Tax Credit which can be worth as much as $4,000.

To be eligible your mom must have been physically or mentally incapable of self-care and must have lived with you for more than six months. To claim this tax credit, fill out IRS Form 2441 (IRS.gov/pub/irs-pdf/f2441.pdf) when you file your federal return.

Flexible Health Savings Accounts
If you have a health savings account (HSA) or your employer offers a flexible savings account (FSA), you can use them to pay for your mom’s medical expenses if she qualifies as a dependent. But be aware that if you use an HSA or FSA to pay for your mom’s medical costs, you can’t take a tax deduction on those expenses too.

For more information, see IRS Publication 969, “Health Savings Accounts and Other Tax-Favored Health Plans” at IRS.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p969.pdf.

Send your senior questions 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.

How to Recognize a Mini-Stroke and What to Do

Dear Savvy Senior,
How can a person know if they’ve had a minor stroke? My 72-year-old mother had a spell a few weeks ago where she suddenly felt dizzy for no apparent reason and had trouble walking and speaking, but it went away, and she seems fine now.
— Concerned Son

Dear Concerned,
The way you’re describing it, it’s very possible that your mom had a “mini-stroke” also known as a transient ischemic attack (TIA), and if she hasn’t already done so she needs to see a doctor as soon as possible.

Each year, around 250,000 Americans have a mini-stroke, but less than half of them realize what’s happening. That’s because the symptoms are usually fleeting – lasting only a few minutes, up to an hour or two – causing most people to ignore them or brush them off as no big deal. But anyone who has had a mini-stroke is much more likely to have a full-blown stroke, which can cause long-term paralysis, impaired memory, loss of speech or vision, and even death.

A mini-stroke is caused by a temporary blockage of blood flow to the brain and can be a warning sign that a major stroke may soon be coming. That’s why mini-strokes need to be treated like emergencies.

Who’s Vulnerable?
A person is more likely to suffer a TIA or stroke if they are overweight or inactive, have high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol or diabetes. Other factors that boost the risks are age (over 60), smoking, heart disease, atrial fibrillation and having a family history of stroke. Men also have a greater risk for stroke than women, and African Americans and Hispanics are at higher risk than those of other races.

Warning Signs
The symptoms of a mini-stroke are the same as those of a full-blown stroke, but can be subtle and short-lived, and they don’t leave any permanent damage. They include any one or combination of the following:
• Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body.
• Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding.
• Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
• Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination.
• Sudden, severe headache with no known cause.

The easiest way to identify a stroke is to use the F.A.S.T. test to identify the symptoms.

F (Face): Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
A (Arm): Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
S (Speech): Ask the person to say a simple sentence. Is their speech slurred?
T (Time): If you observe any of these signs of stroke, call 911.

Get Help
If these warning signs sound like what happened to your mom, but they went away, she needs to go to the emergency room or nearby stroke center.

If the doctor suspects a TIA, he or she will run a series of tests to determine what caused it and assess her risk of a future stroke. Once the cause has been determined, the goal of treatment is to correct the abnormality and prevent a full-blown stroke. Depending on the cause(s), her doctor may prescribe medication to reduce the tendency for blood to clot or may recommend surgery or a balloon procedure (angioplasty).

For more information on mini-strokes and how to recognize one, visit the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association at StrokeAssociation.org.

Send your senior questions 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.

print