Dear Savvy Senior,
What can you tell me about green funeral options? At age 80, I would like to preplan my funeral and make it as natural as possible.
- Old Environmentalist
Great question! Green funeral options are becoming increasingly popular in the United States as more and more Americans are looking for environmentally friendly alternatives to traditional funerals. Here’s what you should know about “green burial” and “green cremation” options, along with some tips to help you locate services in your area.
If you wish to be buried, a green/natural burial will minimize the environmental impact by forgoing the embalming chemicals (which is not required by law), traditional casket and concrete vault. Instead, you’ll be buried in either a biodegradable container or shroud with no vault, and you won’t be embalmed. This allows the body to decompose naturally and become part of the earth.
If you want to temporarily preserve the body for viewing or a memorial service, instead of embalming, you can request dry ice or Techni ice, a refrigeration unit, or a nontoxic embalming agent.
You’ll also be happy to know that green burials are much cheaper than traditional funerals, which average around $8,000 in 2023. By scrapping the coffin, vault and embalming, which are expensive, you’ll save yourself several thousand dollars on your funeral costs.
To find green burial services in your area, a good first step is to see if there’s a certified green funeral home in your area and contact them. The Green Burial Council offers an online directory of providers and other resources at GreenBurialCouncil.org.
If there isn’t one nearby, your next step is to contact several traditional funeral homes to see if they offer green funeral service options – many do.
You’ll also need to find a green cemetery. There are nearly 100 green cemeteries throughout the U.S., along with more than 300 traditional (hybrid) cemeteries that offer green burials too. To find them, the New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education and Advocacy website has a list at NHfuneral.org. Or, if you own rural property you may be able to have a home burial there, if your state and county allow it.
If, however, there are no green cemeteries nearby you can still make your burial more environmentally friendly by not being embalmed. And, if the cemetery allows, using a biodegradable casket or shroud and skipping the vault. If a vault is required, ask to have holes drilled in the bottom, or use a concrete grave box with an open bottom so the body can return to the earth.
If you would rather be cremated, you have some green choices here too. While cremation has always been touted as being more eco-friendly than a typical burial, a traditional cremation, which uses high heat to incinerate the body, does emit greenhouse gases into the air.
A green cremation, however, uses water and potassium hydroxide to reduce a deceased body to its basic element of bone ash within a few hours. This green technique, which is known as alkaline hydrolysis, is a little more expensive than traditional cremation but, unfortunately, it’s not legal in every state. Contact some local funeral providers to find out if this is available in your area, or Google “alkaline hydrolysis cremation” followed by your city and state.
Another green consideration is deciding what to do with the remains. Instead of scattering, which can be harmful to the environment, there are a wide variety of biodegradable urns that dissolve into the earth or water over time, and memorial urns that will grow a plant or tree in combination with your ashes.
How does Medicare cover preventive health services?
Dear Savvy Senior,
How does Medicare cover preventive health screenings? I’m due to get a physical and a colonoscopy this year, but I want to find out what I’ll have to pay for before I go in.
- Just Turned 65
Dear Just Turned,
You’ll be happy to know that Medicare covers a wide array of preventive and screening services to help you stay healthy, but not all services are completely covered. Here’s what you should know.
Free Preventive Benefits
Most of Medicare’s preventive services are available to all beneficiaries (through Part B) completely free with no copays or deductibles, as long as you meet basic eligibility standards. Mammograms; colonoscopies; shots against flu, pneumonia, COVID-19 and hepatitis B; screenings for diabetes, depression, osteoporosis, HIV, various cancers and cardiovascular disease; and counseling to combat obesity, alcohol abuse, and smoking are just some of Medicare’s lengthy list of covered services. But to get these services for free, you need to go to a doctor who accepts Medicare “on assignment,” which means he or she has agreed to accept the Medicare approved rate as full payment.
Also, the tests are free only if they’re used at specified intervals. For example, cardiovascular screening blood tests once every 5 years; or colonoscopy, once every 10 years, or every two years if you’re at high risk.
Medicare also offers a free “Welcome to Medicare” exam with your doctor in your first year, along with annual “Wellness” visits thereafter. But don’t confuse these with full physical examinations. These are prevention-focused visits that provide only an overview of your health and medical risk factors and serve as a baseline for future care.
Cost Sharing Services
There are, however, a few Medicare preventive services that do require some out-of-pocket cost sharing. With these tests, you’ll have to pay 20 percent of the cost of the service after you’ve met your $226 Part B yearly deductible. The services that fall under this category include glaucoma tests, diabetes self-management trainings, barium enemas to detect colon cancer, and digital rectal exams to detect prostate cancer.
For a complete list of services along with their eligibility requirements, visit Medicare.gov/coverage/preventive-screening-services.
If you’re enrolled in a Medicare Advantage (Part C) plan, your plan is also required to cover the same preventive services as original Medicare as long as you see in-network providers.
You also need to know that while most of the previously listed Medicare services are free, you can be charged for certain diagnostic services or additional tests or procedures related to the preventive service. For example, if your doctor finds and removes a polyp during your preventive care colonoscopy screening, you will pay 15 percent of the doctor’s service fee. Or, if during your annual wellness visit, your doctor needs to investigate or treat a new or existing problem, you will probably be charged here too.
You may also have to pay a facility fee depending on where you receive the service. Certain hospitals, for example, will often charge separate facilities fees when you are receiving a preventive service. And you can also be charged for a doctor’s visit if you meet with a physician before or after the service.
To eliminate billing surprises, talk to your doctor before any preventive service procedure to find out if you may be subject to a charge and what it would be.
Best medical alert systems you don’t have to wear
Dear Savvy Senior,
Are there any monitored medical alert devices that you know of that don’t require pushing a wearable help button? My 82-year-old father, who lives alone, has fallen twice during the past year but doesn’t like wearing an SOS pendant button.
- Searching Daughter
Yes, there are actually several monitored medical alert systems and other technologies on the market today that have voice-activated capabilities that let seniors call for help using voice commands, without pushing a wearable help button.
These new technologies are very helpful for elderly seniors that live alone who forget, or prefer not to wear a help button, as well as for those who have physical challenges that makes using a help button difficult.
By simply speaking the “wake words” these devices will connect your dad to a trained dispatcher at a 24/7 monitoring center who will find out what the problem is, and get him the help he needs, whether it’s calling emergency services, or contacting a family member, friend or neighbor to come and help him.
All of these technologies also offer family/caregiver smartphone apps that will help you keep tabs on your dad from afar and notify you know if a problem occurs.
Hands-Free Medical Alerts
Some of the best voice-focused medical alert systems available today are GetSafe, Aloe Care Health and HandsFree Health.
Rated by U.S. News & World Report as their No. 1 medical alert system for 2023, GetSafe (GetSafe.com) comes with a cellular base console, voice-activated and push wall buttons, an optional personal help button and fall detection sensors. To call for help your dad would simply say “Call 911” twice and he would be connected to GetSafe’s 24/7 monitoring service. Prices for GetSafe start at $79 plus a $30 monthly monitoring fee.
Another highly rated system is Aloe Care Health (AloeCare.com), which comes with a voice-activated Smart Hub and optional wearable help button with fall detection capabilities. This system would connect your dad to the Aloe Care 24/7 monitoring center by simply saying “Emergency” repeatedly until connected. It can also make voice command nonemergency calls to preassigned contacts. Prices start at $150 plus a monthly fee of $30.
The WellBe by HandsFree Health (HandsFreeHealth.com) is a nice third option to consider. This comes with the WellBe Medical Alert Speaker that would let your dad call for help by saying “OK WellBe Call Emergency.”
WellBe also offers hands-free calling and messaging to contacts, will answer health questions, and provide reminders for medications and doctor appointments. It also offers a medical alert watch and pendant (sold separately) with fall detection capabilities. WellBe starts at $100 plus $20/month.
Smart Home Solution
Instead of a traditional medical alert system, another terrific hands-free way to call for help is to get your dad an Amazon Echo device (prices range from $50 to $250) and sign him up for Alexa Together (Amazon.com/AlexaTogether). This is remote caregiving service that will turn his Echo into a medical alert system. To get help your dad would say “Alexa, call for help” to be connected to their 24/7 Urgent Response center.
Alexa Together, which costs $20/month, also works with compatible third-party fall detection devices like Vayyar and AltumView. If a fall is detected, Alexa can ask your dad if he needs help, then connect him to the Urgent Response line and alert his emergency contacts.
Amazon Echo devices also provide a bevy of other features your dad may find useful. For example, Echo’s will let your dad make hands-free calls, receive reminders, set timers and alarms, control smart home devices, check the weather, play his favorite music and much more.
Retirement planning tips for single women
Dear Savvy Senior,
What retirement planning tips can you recommend to single women? I’m a divorced 58-year-old women with a teenaged son and have very little saved for retirement.
- Financially Vulnerable
It’s an unfortunate reality, but many single women – whether they’re divorced, widowed or never married – face much greater financial challenges in retirement than men.
The reasons behind this are because women tend to earn less money – about 82 cents for every dollar that men make, on average, and they have shorter working careers than men due to raising children and/or caring for aging parents. And less money earned usually translates into less money saved and a lower Social Security benefit when you retire.
In addition, women live an average of five years longer than men, which requires their retirement income to stretch farther for living expenses and healthcare costs. And, according to some studies, women tend to have less confidence about financial issues than men, which means they don’t always manage their money as well as they should.
Because of these issues, it’s very important that women educate themselves on financial matters and learn how to save more effectively. Here are some tips and resources that may help.
Start Saving Aggressively
If your employer offers a retirement plan, such as a 401K, you should contribute enough to at least capitalize on a company match, if available. And if you can swing it, contribute even more. In 2023, you can save as much as $22,500 in a 401(k), or $30,000 to those 50 and older, due to the catch-up rule.
If you don’t have a workplace plan, consider opening a Traditional or Roth IRA. Both are powerful tax-advantaged retirement savings accounts that let you contribute up to $6,500 annually, or $7,500 when you’re over 50. And if you’re self-employed, consider a SEP-IRA, SIMPLE-IRA and/or a solo 401(k), all of which can help reduce your taxable income while putting money away for retirement.
Also, if you have a high-deductible health insurance policy (at least $1,500 for self-only coverage or $3,000 for family coverage), you should consider opening a health savings account (HSA). This is a triple tax advantage tool that can be used to sock away funds pre-tax, which will lower your taxable income; the money in the account grows tax-free; and if you use the money for eligible medical expenses, the withdrawals are tax-free too.
Pay Off Debts
If you have debt, you need to get it under control. If you need help with this, consider a nonprofit credit-counseling agency that provides free or low-cost advice and solutions, and can help you set up a debt management plan. To locate a credible agency in your area, use the National Foundation for Credit Counseling website at NFCC.org (800-388-2227), or the or the Financial Counseling Association of America FCAA.org (800-450-1794).
To help you educate yourself on financial matters like retirement planning, saving and investing, health care, annuities and more, a top resource is the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement at WiserWomen.org.
And to help you get up to speed on Social Security, visit SSA.gov/people/women. This web page, dedicated to women, provides helpful publications like “What Every Woman Should Know,” along with links to benefit calculators and your personal Social Security account to help you figure out your future earnings at different retirement ages.
You should also consider getting a financial assessment with a fee-only financial advisor. Costs for these services will vary from around $150 to $300 per hour, but this can be very beneficial to help you set-up a retirement plan you can follow. See NAPFA.org or GarrettPlanningNetwork.com to locate an advisor in your area.
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.