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Savvy Senior — February Columns

Savvy Senior – February 2019 Columns

  1. How to Save Money on Your Medication
  2. Helping Seniors Extend Their Driving Years
  3. Do I Need to File a Tax Return This Year?
  4. How to Slow Down Cognitive Aging

How to Save Money on Your Medication

Dear Savvy Senior,
I take several medications for multiple health conditions and the prices keep going up, even with insurance. Can you recommend any tips that can help me save?
Price-Gouged Patty

Dear Patty,
The rising cost of prescription drugs is a problem that stings millions of Americans. While there’s no one solution, there are some different strategies and resources that can help reduce your drug costs, so you can afford what you need. Here are several to consider.

If you have insurance, know your drug formulary: Most drug plans today have formularies (a list of medications they cover) that place drugs into different “tiers.” Drugs in each tier have a different cost. A drug in a lower tier will generally cost you less than a drug in a higher tier, and higher tier drugs may require you to get permission or try another medication first before you can use it.

To get a copy of your plan’s formulary, visit your drug plan’s website or call the 800 number on the back of your insurance card. Once you have this information, share it with your doctor so, if possible, he or she can prescribe you medications in the lower-cost tiers. Or, they can help you get coverage approval from your insurer if you need a more expensive drug.

You also need to find out if your drug plan offers preferred pharmacies or offers a mail-order service. Buying your meds from these sources can save you some money too.

Talk to your doctor: Ask your doctor if any of the medications you’re currently taking can be reduced or stopped. And, find out if the ones you are taking are available in generic form. About 80 percent of all premium drugs on the market today have a lower-cost alternative. Switching could save you between 20 and 90 percent.

Ask for a three-month prescription: This can be significantly cheaper for drugs you take long-term. If you use insurance, you’ll pay one co-pay rather than three.

Split your pills: Ask your doctor if the pills you’re taking can be cut in half. Pill splitting allows you to get two months’ worth of medicine for the price of one. If you do this, you’ll need to get a prescription from your doctor for twice the dosage you need.

Find and use online discounts: Start by trying GoodRx.com, BlinkHealth.com or WeRx.org. They will ask for the name of the drug, the dose, the number of pills, and where you live. Then they will show you what you can expect to pay at various pharmacies if you use their discount coupons or vouchers, which you can print out or download to your phone to show a pharmacist.

Pay cash: Most generic medications cost less if you don’t use your insurance. For example, chains like Target and Walmart offer discount-drug programs that sell generics for as little as $4 for a 30-day supply and $10 for a 90-day supply if you pay out-of-pocket. While some insurance companies charge a $10 copay for a 30-day supply.

Also ask your pharmacy if they offer a drug discount card program and compare costs with your insurance plan. You can also find free drug discount cards online at sites like NeedyMeds.org, which can be used at most U.S. pharmacies.

Shop online: You can also save by using an online pharmacy like HealthWarehouse.com but be sure to use an online retailer that operates within the U.S. and is licensed. The site should display the VIPPS symbol, which shows it’s a Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Site.

Search for drug assistance programs: If your income is limited, you can probably get help through drug assistance programs offered through pharmaceutical companies, government agencies and charitable organizations. To find these types of programs use sites like BenefitsCheckUp.org, PatientAdvocate.org, RxAssist.org and NeedyMeds.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.

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Helping Seniors Extend Their Driving Years

Dear Savvy Senior,
What tips or resources can you recommend to help elderly seniors extend their driving years? My dad, who’s 82, is still a decent driver, but I worry about his safety going forward.
Inquiring Daughter

Dear Inquiring,
With more than 40 million licensed drivers in the U.S. over the age of 65, there are lots of resources available today to help keep older drivers safe and behind the wheel longer. Here are some simple steps you can take to help keep your dad driving safely.

Get his eyes checked: Because about 90 percent of the information necessary to drive is received through our eyes, getting your dad’s eyes checked every year to be sure his vision and eyewear is up to par is an important first step.

Check his meds: Does your dad take any medicine or combination of medicines that make him sleepy, light-headed or loopy? If so, make a list of all his medications (prescription and over-the-counter) and dietary supplements, and take it to his doctor or pharmacist for a review. You can also get help with this online at RoadwiseRX.com.

Evaluate his driving: To stay on top of any potential driving issues, you should take a ride with your dad from time-to-time watching for problem areas, such as: Does he drive at inappropriate speeds, tailgate or drift between lanes? Does he have difficulty seeing, backing up or changing lanes? Does he react slowly, get confused easily or make poor driving decisions? For more tips, see the National Caregivers Library driving assessment checklist at SeniorDriverChecklist.org.

If your dad needs a more thorough evaluation, you can turn to a driver rehabilitation specialist who’s trained to evaluate older drivers. This type of assessment typically costs between $100 and $200. To locate a professional in your area, visit AOTA.org/older-driver or ADED.net.

Take a refresher course: AAA and AARP both have older driver refresher courses that can help your dad tune-up his driving skills, and learn how to adjust for slower reflexes, weaker vision and other age-related changes that affect driving. Taking a class may also earn him a discount on his auto insurance. To locate a class, contact your local AAA (AAA.com), or AARP (AARP.org/drive, 888-227-7669). Most courses cost around $15 to $30 and can be taken in the classroom or online.

Another good resource to look into is CarFit. This is a free assessment program that will help your dad adjust his vehicle for a better fit, making it easier and safer to drive. CarFit events are held around the country in select locations. See Car-Fit.org to look for one near you.

Make some adjustments: Recognizing your dad’s driving vulnerabilities and making small changes on when and where he drives can go a long way in helping keep him safe and driving longer. Adjustments may include not driving after dark or during rush hour traffic, avoiding major highways or other busy roads, and not driving in poor weather conditions.

You can find more tips at AAA Senior Driving at SeniorDriving.AAA.com.

And finally, when it gets to the point that your dad’s driving isn’t safe anymore and he needs to quit, The Hartford Financial Services Group and MIT AgeLab offers two helpful resources. Go to TheHartford.com/lifetime – click on “Publications” on the menu bar – and download or order the “At the Crossroads” and/or “We Need to Talk” guides.

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.

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Do I Need to File a Tax Return This Year?

Dear Savvy Senior,
What are the IRS income tax filing requirements for retirees this tax season? My income dropped way down when I had to retire last year, so I’m wondering if I need to file a tax return this year.
Retired Ron

Dear Ron,
Whether or not you are required to file a federal income tax return this year actually depends on several factors: how much you earned last year (in 2018); the source of that income; your age; and your filing status.

Here’s a rundown of this tax season’s IRS tax filing requirement thresholds. For most people, this is pretty straightforward. If your 2018 gross income – which includes all taxable income, not counting your Social Security benefits, unless you are married and filing separately – was below the threshold for your filing status and age, you may not have to file. But if it’s over, you will.

  • Single: $12,000 ($13,600 if you’re 65 or older by Jan. 1, 2019).
  • Married filing jointly: $24,000 ($25,300 if you or your spouse is 65 or older; or $26,600 if you’re both over 65).
  • Married filing separately: $5 at any age.
  • Head of household: $18,000 ($19,600 if age 65 or older).
  • Qualifying widow(er) with dependent child: $24,000 ($25,300 if age 65 or older).

To get a detailed breakdown on federal filing requirements, along with information on taxable and nontaxable income, call the IRS at 800-829-3676 and ask them to mail you a free copy of the “Tax Guide for Seniors” (publication 554) or see IRS.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p554.pdf.

Check Here, Too
There are, however, some other financial situations that can require you to file a tax return, even if your gross income falls below the IRS filing requirements. For example, if you earned more than $400 from self-employment in 2018, owe any special taxes like an alternative minimum tax, or get premium tax credits because you, your spouse or a dependent is enrolled in a Health Insurance Marketplace (Obamacare) plan, you’ll need to file.

You’ll also need to file if you’re receiving Social Security benefits, and one-half of your benefits plus your other gross income and any tax-exempt interest exceeds $25,000, or $32,000 if you’re married and filing jointly.

To figure all this out, the IRS offers an interactive tax assistant tool on their website that asks a series of questions that will help you determine if you’re required to file, or if you should file because you’re due a refund. It takes less than 15 minutes to complete.

You can access this tool at IRS.gov/filing – click on “Do I Need to File?” Or, you can get assistance over the phone by calling the IRS helpline at 800-829-1040. You can also get face-to-face help at a Taxpayer Assistance Center. See IRS.gov/localcontacts or call 800-829-1040 to locate a center near you.

Check Your State
Even if you’re not required to file a federal tax return this year, don’t assume that you’re also excused from filing state income taxes. The rules for your state might be very different. Check with your state tax agency before concluding that you’re entirely in the clear. For links to state tax agencies see Taxadmin.org/state-tax-agencies.

Tax Preparation Help
If you find that you do need to file a tax return this year, you can get help through the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (or TCE) program. Sponsored by the IRS, TEC provides free tax preparation and counseling to middle and low-income taxpayers, age 60 and older. Call 800-906-9887 or visit IRS.treasury.gov/freetaxprep to locate a service near you.

Also check with AARP, a participant in the TCE program that provides free tax preparation at around 5,000 sites nationwide. To locate an AARP Tax-Aide site call 888-227-7669 or visit AARP.org/findtaxhelp. You don’t have to be an AARP member to use this service.

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.

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How to Slow Down Cognitive Aging

Dear Savvy Senior
Are there any proven strategies to preventing cognitive decline? I have a family history of dementia and worry about my own memory and cognitive abilities as I grow older. What can you tell me?
Almost 60

Dear Almost 60,
For most people, starting in their fifties and sixties, the brain’s ability to remember names, multi-task or learn something new starts declining. While our genes (which we can’t control) play a key role in determining our cognitive aging, our general health (which we do have some control over) plays a big factor too.

Here are some healthy lifestyle strategies – recommended by medical experts – that you can employ that can help stave off cognitive loss and maybe even build a stronger brain.

Manage health problems: Studies have shown that cognitive problems are related to health conditions, like diabetes, heart disease and even depression. So, if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes you need to treat them with lifestyle changes and medication (if necessary) and get them under control. And if you have a history of depression, you need to talk to your doctor about treatment options.

Exercise: Aerobic exercise increases blood flow to all parts of your body, including your brain, to keep the brain cells well nourished. So, choose an aerobic activity you enjoy like walking, cycling, dancing, swimming, etc., that elevates your heart rate and do it for at least 30 to 40 minutes three times a week.

Eat healthy: A heart-healthy diet, like the Mediterranean diet, will also help protect the brain. A Mediterranean diet includes relatively little red meat and emphasizes whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish and shellfish, and nuts, olive oil and other healthy fats. Also keep processed foods and sweets to a minimum.

Get some sleep: Quality, restful sleep contributes to brain health too. Typically, adults should get between seven and nine hours of sleep daily. If you have persistent problems sleeping, you need to identify and address the problem. Medications, late-night exercise and alcohol can interfere with sleep quality and length, as can arthritis pain, sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome.

If you need help, make an appointment with a sleep specialist who will probably recommend an overnight diagnostic sleep test.

Challenge your mind: Some research suggests that mind challenging activities can help improve memory, and slow age-related mental decline. But, be aware that these activities consist of things you aren’t accustomed to doing. In other words, crossword puzzles aren’t enough to challenge your brain, if you’re already a regular puzzle-doer. Instead, you need to pick up a new skill like learning to dance, play a musical instrument, study a new language or do math problems – something that’s challenging and a little outside your comfort zone.

Brain-training websites like Lumosity.com and BrainHQ.com are good mind exercising tools because they continually adapt to your skill level to keep you challenged.

Socializing and interacting with other people is another important way to stimulate the brain. So make a point to reach out and stay connected to friends, family and neighbors. Join a club, take a class or even volunteer – anything that enhances your social life.                                                                                       

Don’t smoke or drink excessively: Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption both effect the brain in a negative way, so kick the habit if you smoke and, if you drink, do so only in moderation.

Reduce stress: Some stress is good for the brain, but too much can be toxic. There’s growing evidence that things like mindfulness meditation, yoga and tai chi are all good ways to help reduce stress.

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.

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