Savvy Senior — January Columns

Savvy Senior – January 2020 Columns

  1. IRS Introduces a Tax Form Created for Older Taxpayers
  2. Monitoring Solutions for Loved Ones with Dementia
  3. Food Assistance Programs Can Help Seniors in Need
  4. Does Medicare Covers Counseling Services?
  5. How to Choose the Right Hospital for You

IRS Introduces a Tax Form Created for Older Taxpayers

Dear Savvy Senior,
A couple months back I read that the IRS will be offering a new senior-friendly tax form this tax season that will be easier to use. What can you tell me about this?
Paper Filer

Dear Filer,
It’s true. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has created a new federal income-tax form specifically designed for senior taxpayers, age 65 and older, that should make filing a little easier this year, particularly those who don’t file electronically. Here’s what you should know.

Form 1040-SR
Created by the 2018 Bipartisan Budget Act, the new two-page simplified federal income tax form is called the 1040-SR. Similar in style to the old 1040-EZ form that the IRS discontinued last year, the new 1040-SR has larger print and better color contrast that makes it easier to read.

In addition, it also includes a chart to help older taxpayers calculate their standard deduction, which may help ensure that fewer seniors neglect to take the additional standard deduction that they are entitled to. For 2019, the additional deduction for those 65 or older or the blind is $1,300.

The 1040-SR form also has specific lines for retirement income streams such as Social Security benefits, IRA distributions, pensions and annuities, along with earned income from work wages and tips. And, it allows a child tax credit for seniors who are still taking care of a dependent child or grandchild.

You can also report capital gains and losses, as well as interest and dividends on this new form. Any of the tax schedules available to those using the standard form 1040 may also be used with the 1040-SR.

You should also know that the 1040-SR doesn’t put a limit on interest, dividends, or capital gains, nor does it cap overall income like the old 1040-EZ form did. But, if you have to itemize because of state and local taxes or charitable giving, then you will not be able to use the new Form 1040-SR.

Paper Filing Advantage
Seniors who use tax-preparation software to file their taxes will be able to generate a 1040-SR, but the new form will provide the most significant benefit to taxpayers who still fill out and file their returns on paper.

Last year, about 88 percent of the 153 million individual federal tax returns filed to the IRS were filed electronically. About 5 percent were prepared using tax software, then printed out and mailed to the agency, while about 7 percent were prepared on paper.

To use the new 1040-SR tax form for the 2019 filing year, taxpayers, including both spouses if filing jointly, must be at least age 65 before Jan. 1, 2020. You also don’t have to be retired to use the form – older workers can use it too. But early retirees (younger than 65) cannot use 1040-SR.

To see the 2019 draft version of the new 1040-SR form, go to IRS.gov/pub/irs-dft/f1040s–dft.pdf.

Tax Preparation Help
If you need help filing your tax returns this year, consider contacting 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 more than 4,800 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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Monitoring Solutions for Loved Ones with Dementia

Dear Savvy Senior,
My husband, who lives at home, has dementia and I worry about him wandering off and not being able to get back. Can you recommend some monitoring technology devices or any other solutions that can help me keep tabs on him?
Exhausted Spouse

Dear Exhausted,
This is a concern for millions of Americans caring for a loved one with dementia at home. About 60 percent of people who suffer from dementia wander at some point, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

For caregivers, this can be frightening because many of those who wander off end up confused and lost, even in their own neighborhood, and are unable to communicate who they are or where they live. Here are some product and service solutions that may help.

Simple Solutions
For starters, there are a number of simple home modifications you can do to keep your husband from wandering away. Some solutions include adding an extra lock on the top or bottom of the exterior doors out of the line of sight or installing door alarms on the exterior doors that let you know when they’re opened. See AlzStore.com for a variety of product solutions. And, be sure you hide the car keys to keep him from driving.

You should also alert your neighbors that your husband may wander so they can keep an eye out and have a recent picture of him on hand to show around the neighborhood or to the police if he does get lost.

Monitoring Technology
For high-tech solutions, there are a variety of wearable GPS tracking devices available today that can help you keep tabs on him. Some top options to consider include AngelSense (AngelSense.com), which can be attached to clothing or worn around the waist; wristwatches like the Theora Connect (TheoraCare.com) or NurtureWatch (NurtureWatch.com); and the GPS SmartSole (GPSSmartSole.com), which is a shoe insole tracker.

All of these products come with smartphone apps that would alert you if your husband were to wander beyond a pre-established safe area and would let you know where to find him if he did. These products (except the GPS SmartSole) also provide two-way voice communication and auto pickup speakerphone so you can talk to him if he does wander off.

Locating Services
If the previously listed options don’t work for you, there are also locating services – like the MedicAlert + Safe Return program (MedicAlert.org/alz) and Vitals Aware Services (TheVitalsApp.com) – that can help you if he does wander off.

The MedicAlert + Safe Return program comes with a personalized ID bracelet that would have your husband’s medical information engraved on it, along with his membership number and the toll-free MedicAlert emergency phone number. If he goes missing, you would call 911 and report it to the local police department who would begin a search, and then report it to MedicAlert. Or, a Good Samaritan or police officer may find him and call the MedicAlert number to get him back home.

The Vitals Aware Service works a bit differently. This is a free app-based network system that comes with a small beacon that your husband would wear. If he did go missing, anyone in the Vitals app network community that came within 80 feet of him would receive an alert and information about him so they could contact you.

Another option that could help, depending on where you live, is a radio frequency locater service like SafetyNet and Project Lifesaver, which are offered by some local law enforcement agencies.

With these services, your husband would wear a wristband that contains a radio transmitter that emits tracking signals. If he goes missing, you would contact the local authorities who would send out rescue personnel who will use their tracking equipment to locate him. Visit SafetyNetTracking.com and Projectlifesaver.org to see if these services are available in your community.

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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Food Assistance Programs Can Help Seniors in Need

Dear Savvy Senior,
I would like to find out if my 73-year-old aunt is eligible for food stamps or any other type of food assistance program. It seems that she has a difficult time affording enough food each month, and I’d like to help if I can. What can you tell me?
Searching Niece

Dear Searching,
Sadly, millions of older Americans, like your aunt, struggle with food costs. According to a recent study by Feeding America, 5.5 million U.S. seniors age 60 and older are food insecure. Fortunately, there are several programs that may be able to help. Here’s what you should know.

SNAP Benefits
While there are millions of seniors who are eligible for food stamps, less than 40 percent actually take advantage of this benefit. Food stamps are now referred to as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. However, your state may use a different name.

For seniors to get SNAP, their net income must be under the 100 percent federal poverty guidelines. So, households that have at least one-person age 60 and older, or disabled, their net monthly income must be less than $1,041 per month for an individual or $1,410 for a family of two. Households receiving TANF or SSI are also eligible.

Net income is figured by taking gross income minus allowable deductions including a standard monthly deduction, medical expenses that exceed $35 per month out-of-pocket, and shelter expenses (rent or mortgage payments, taxes and utility costs) that exceeds half of the household’s income.

In addition to the net income requirement, a few states also require that a senior’s assets be below $3,500, not counting their home, retirement or pension plans, income from SSI or TANF, and vehicle (this varies by state). Most states, however, have much higher asset limits or they don’t count assets at all when determining eligibility.

To apply, seniors or an authorized representative will need to fill out a state application form, which can be done at the local SNAP office or, it can be mailed or faxed in. In many states it can be completed online.

If eligible, benefits will be provided on a plastic card that’s used like a debit card and accepted at most grocery stores. The average SNAP benefit for 60-and-older households is around $125 per month.

To learn more or apply, contact your local SNAP office – call 800-221-5689 for contact information or visit fns.usda.gov/snap.

Other Programs
In addition to SNAP, there are other federal programs that can help low-income seniors, age 60 and older, like the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) and the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP).

The CSFP (see fns.usda.gov/csfp) is a program that provides supplemental food packages to seniors with income limits at or below the 130 percent poverty line.

And the SFMNP (fns.usda.gov/sfmnp) provides seniors coupons that can be exchanged for fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets, roadside stands and community supported agriculture programs in select locations throughout the U.S. To be eligible, your aunt’s income must be below the 185 percent poverty level.

There are also many Feeding America network food banks that host “Senior Grocery Programs” that provide free groceries to older adults, no strings attached. Contact your local food bank (see feedingamerica.org/find-your-local-foodbank) to find out if a program is available nearby.

In addition to the food assistance programs, there are also various financial assistance programs that may help your aunt pay for medications, health care, utilities and more. To locate these programs, and learn how to apply for them, go to BenefitsCheckUp.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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Does Medicare Covers Counseling Services?

Dear Savvy Senior,
Does Medicare cover outpatient counseling services for its beneficiaries? Since the death of my sister last year, I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety and would like to get some help.
Sad Senior

Dear Sad Senior,
I’m sorry for your loss. Yes, Medicare covers both outpatient and inpatient mental health services to help beneficiaries with depression, anxiety and many other needs. Here’s what you should know.

Outpatient Coverage
If you have original Medicare, your Part B coverage will pay 80 percent (after you’ve met your $198 Part B deductible) for a variety of counseling and mental health care services that are provided outside a hospital, like individual or group therapy, family counseling and more. They also cover services for treatment of beneficiaries who struggle with alcohol and drug abuse.

You or your supplemental insurance is responsible for the remaining 20 percent coinsurance.

Medicare also gives you the option of getting treatment through a variety of mental health professionals such as psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers and clinical nurse specialists.

To get this coverage, you’ll need to choose a “participating provider” that accepts Medicare assignment, which means they accept Medicare’s approved amount as full payment for a service.

If you choose a “nonparticipating provider” who accepts Medicare but does not agree to Medicare’s payment rate, you may have to pay more. And if you choose an “opt-out provider” that does not accept Medicare payments at all, you will be responsible for the entire cost.

To locate a mental health care professional in your area that accepts Medicare assignment, use Medicare’s online Physician Compare tool. Go to Medicare.gov/PhysicianCompare and type in your ZIP code, or city and state, then type in the type of profession you want to locate, like “psychiatry” or “clinical psychologist” in the search box. You can also get this information by calling Medicare at 800-633-4227.

Inpatient Coverage
If you need mental health services in either a general or psychiatric hospital, original Medicare Part A covers this too (after you’ve met your $1,408 Part A deductible). Your doctor should determine which hospital setting you need. If you receive care in a psychiatric hospital, Medicare covers up to 190 days of inpatient care for your lifetime. And if you use your lifetime days but need additional care, Medicare may cover additional inpatient care at a general hospital.

Additional Coverage
In addition to the outpatient and inpatient mental health services, Medicare also covers yearly depression screenings that must be done in a primary care doctor’s office or clinic. Annual depression screenings are covered 100 percent.

And if you have a Medicare prescription drug plan, most medications used to treat mental health conditions are covered too.

Medicare Advantage
If you happen to get your Medicare benefits through a private Medicare Advantage plan, they must provide the same coverage as original Medicare does, but they may impose different rules and will likely require you to see an in-network provider. You’ll need to contact your plan directly for details.

And for more information, you can call Medicare at 800-633-4227 and request a copy of publication #10184 “Medicare & Your Mental Health Benefits,” or you can read it online at Medicare.gov.

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 Choose the Right Hospital for You

Dear Savvy Senior,
I need to get a hip replacement, and want to find a good, safe hospital to have it done in. What resources can you recommend for evaluating hospitals? I don’t currently have a doctor.
Shopping Around

Dear Shopping,
Most people spend more time shopping for a kitchen appliance or flat-screen TV than choosing a hospital. But selecting the right one can be as important as the doctor you choose. Here are some tips and resources to help you research the hospitals in your area.

Hospital Shopping
While you may not always have the opportunity to choose your hospital, especially in the case of an emergency, having a planned procedure can offer you a variety of choices.

When shopping for a hospital, the most important criteria is to choose one that has a strong department in treating your area of need. A facility that excels in coronary bypass surgery, for example, may not be the best choice for a hip replacement. Research shows that patients tend to have better results when they’re treated in hospitals that have extensive experience with their specific condition.

In order to choose a hospital that’s best for you, it is important to discuss your concerns and alternatives with the doctor who is treating you. Some doctors may be affiliated with several hospitals from which you can choose. Or, if you’ve yet to select a doctor, finding a top hospital that has expertise with your condition can help you determine which physician to actually choose.

Another important reason to do some research is the all too frequent occurrence of hospital infections, which kill around 75,000 people in the U.S. each year. So, checking your hospital’s infection rates and cleanliness procedures is also a smart move.

Free Researching Tools
There are a number of free online resources that can help you evaluate and compare hospitals in your area, including:

  • Medicare’s Hospital Compare (gov/HospitalCompare): Operated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, this tool has data on more than 4,000 U.S. hospitals.
  • Why Not The Best (org): Created by the Commonwealth Fund, this is a private foundation that provides performance data on all U.S. hospitals.
  • The Leapfrog Group (org): This national, not-for-profit organization grades more than 2,000 U.S. hospitals on quality and safety.

These websites use publicly available data to rate hospitals on various measures of performance like death rates from serious conditions such as heart failure and pneumonia, frequency of hospital-acquired infections, patient satisfaction and more.

On these websites, you plug in your location to find hospitals in your area. You can then check to see how well or poorly each hospital manages patients in various conditions.

Two other good sites that can help you choose a good facility include U.S. News & World Report (USNews.com/best-hospitals) and Healthgrades (Healthgrades.com).

U.S News & World Report is an online publication that publishes a hospital ranking in 17 medical specialties like cancer, orthopedics and urology, and rates common procedures and conditions, such as heart bypass surgery, hip and knee replacement and COPD. They also rank hospitals regionally within states and major metro areas.

And Healthgrades, which is a private for-profit organization, provides free hospital ratings on patient safety and medical procedures, and scores hospitals using a 5-star scale. They also provide comprehensive information on most U.S. doctors including their education and training, hospital affiliations, board certification, awards and recognitions, professional misconduct, disciplinary action and malpractice records, office locations and insurance plans.

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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