Author Archives: Ray Copson

Resisting Robocalls

The barrage of unwanted robocalls to private American telephones continues unabated. Seniors are a primary target. The callers use all sorts of ploys to try to trick us into buying dubious goods and services or to hand over vital information, such as credit card and bank bank account numbers, that can be used to defraud us.

Robocallers are tricky, to say the least. They may adopt a friendly, conversational tone so that we lower our defenses, or they may play on our fears and desires. When Rachel, from Credit Card Services calls, we may listen to her pitch out of fear that we might have overlooked a payment.  We don’t want the kids to think that we’re letting car maintenance slide, so we may listen to Joe from the Auto Service Department when he calls to offer an extended warranty. We seniors love to travel, so why not listen when someone calls to offer a free cruise or a stay at a holiday resort?

You might think that law enforcement would protect us from these calls, and some steps are being taken. But efforts so far seem woefully inadequate. The Federal Trade Commission and the State of Florida launched a suit against the company allegedly behind Rachel in June 2016, but I’ve had a couple of calls from her in the past few weeks. Meanwhile, our phone in New York State rings three or four times a day — sometimes more — with other unwanted calls.

What can we do to protect ourselves? Many of us already refuse to pick up the phone when we don’t recognize the caller, although that means enduring many annoying rings. Robocallers these days are able to spoof area codes, numbers, and identities in an effort to fool us into picking up anyway. The only thing to do then is to hang up as soon as we realize that we’re listening to the opening recording of a robocall or the voice of someone who is trying to sell us something. Pressing any buttons or saying anything may give robocallers information and alert them to the fact that they have reached a live number, resulting in even more calls.

Beyond eternal vigilance, there are some technical measures that can be taken against robocallers. An easy one is to punch *77 into your receiver. In most parts of the country this will enroll you in Anonymous Call Rejection, putting an end to calls from “unknown name, unknown number.” If, for some reason, you want to start receiving those calls again, punch in *87.

A much more powerful free tool, Nomorobo, is available if you receive your landline telephone service through an internet provider, such as Verizon Fios, Time Warner, Xfinity, or Frontier. Nomorobo uses data analysis to identify numbers being used to make robocalls and blocks them from ringing your phone. We’ve added Nomorobo at our townhouse in Virginia, where the service comes through Verizon FIOS, and the phone has been blessedly quiet.

Unfortunately, traditional landline providers have not yet adopted the Nomorobo technology, or something similar. That’s the situation at our home in the Finger Lakes, where our only option would be to purchase a device, such as a Sentry 3 or a Digitone Call Blocker. Judging from the reviews at Amazon, these devices can be a little tricky to set up, but are highly effective. If we were staying at our place in New York, we would probably buy a call blocker, since the robocall situation there is pretty bad.

What about cell phones? So far, I haven’t received many robocalls on my cell, but there have been a few. There are some cell phone call blocker apps that I might consider if things get worse — Nomorobo sells one for the IPhone for $1.99 a month, with an Android version promised for the future. Truecaller is a free app claiming millions of subscribers that offers caller ID, call blocking, and a global telephone directory. Privacy is the main concern with Truecaller — when you download the app, it crawls your contacts and adds them to its directory. That’s why the directory is so powerful. If privacy isn’t a concern, Truecaller may be for you.

Of course, anyone who wants to avoid telemarketing calls should sign up for the National Do Not Call Registry, but that’s only effective with respect to law-abiding telemarketing firms. The problems seniors face come instead from the illegal robocallers employing techniques aimed at our vulnerabilities. That’s why it’s also a good idea to support the End Robocalls Campaign being led by Consumers Union. You can sign their petition at https://consumersunion.org/end-robocalls/.

 

 

 

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Margaret Drabble’s New Book on Aging and Death

Margaret Drabble, in The Dark Flood Rises, turns her discerning eye to old age and death. Death is the dark flood, which must one day too soon engulf those of us, like Drabble, now in our seventies, just as it ultimately engulfs us all.

Drabble’s new novel features a large cast of English seniors coping with old age and facing, or trying to deny, death. You could call this bunch over-educated and privileged, by and large, but they make good companions for confronting fate. Fran, the principal character, is still working — driving all over England to promote safe housing for the elderly on behalf her employer, a benevolent foundation. She loves staying in Premier Inns, a mid-range motel chain, watching the local news, and sipping a stiff whiskey before bed.

Claude, Fran’s ex-husband, is confined by illness to a comfortable flat in London, where he listens to Maria Callas recordings and is visited daily by Persephone, a gorgeous caregiver from Zimbabwe. A retired physician, Claude achieves transcendence each day with a self-prescribed psychedelic drug. Fran, for reasons even she doesn’t quite understand, has taken to delivering meals she prepares each week for Claude to keep in the freezer and reheat. I’d like the recipes for some of her dishes — chicken tarragon, potato-anchovy-egg bake, and kedgeree — a curried rice and fish casserole much favored at British brunches.

Down in the Canary Islands, Bennett, a retired historian, and Ivor, his younger companion of 50 years, have been leading a busy social life but are slowing down. Bennett has decided to write a brief history of the Canaries for tourists to buy. Ivor doubts it will sell, and financially dependent on Bennett, he is worried about how he will survive when the great man dies.

These are just three of the many tales Drabble tells of the life styles and coping mechanisms seniors choose. At times I wondered whether she was mocking the things we do to keep our minds engaged, such as writing blogs, and to give our lives meaning. Fran sometimes suggests that it’s all pointless. “Women live too long, Fran says, spearing a scampi tail and dabbing it into the tartare sauce. We need a plan to get rid of us. A magic lozenge.” Or, “Longevity has fucked up our pensions, our work-life balance, our health services, our housing, our happiness. It’s fucked up old age itself.”

But I think Drabble is celebrating the many and diverse courses seniors take. Certainly she celebrates her friend Josephine, who leads a seminar for seniors on poetry that deals with aging. Josephine researches obscure literary topics largely because she likes being in libraries. She imbibes an exotic cocktail every Thursday evening with Owen England, another retired academic, who is writing a monograph on clouds.

Drabble also celebrates connectedness. Her characters are all connected in some way, and though some are certainly selfish, they worry about one another and give help and comfort where they can. None can stave off the inevitable, however, and Drabble offers insights into the many ways of dying.

You’ll want to keep your laptop or IPad handy when reading this book, both to look up unusual words (“caducity”), and to familiarize yourself with the many artists and intellectuals from the first half of the twentieth century that Drabble’s characters summon up. Unamuno, Cesar Manrique, and de Chiroco have been off my radar, but it was fun to bone up on them.

The book is replete with penetrating phrases and quotations that inspire reflection.

Drabble gives us DEP (Descanse en Paz or Rest in Peace), to think about. It’s inscribed on the anonymous grave markers of African migrants who drowned trying to reach the Canaries.

Or this, from Macbeth, whose actions deprived him of a peaceful end,

And that which should accompany old age,
As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have …

I don’t expect a great deal of obedience as my days draw to a close, but I would surely welcome honor, love, and troops of friends.

 

 

 

Threats at JCCs Harm Seniors and Communities

More than 100 Jewish Community Centers in 11 states have been threatened with bomb attacks since January. This is a depressing problem on many levels. Worst of all, it marks a rise in  anti-semitism that has also seen incidents of vandalism at Jewish cemeteries. It’s a wave of hatred that could end in violence.

Even now, the evacuations and closures at JCCs resulting from the threats are disrupting the lives of American communities, where JCCs are key centers for community life. Open to all, the centers typically have child care and schools, gymnasiums, and pools as well as a full range of social and educational programs.

Seniors are major JCC beneficiaries. The Jewish Community Center in Edison, NJ, for example, recently sponsored a lecture on living with low vision, emphasizing ways of maintaining independence despite deteriorating eyesight. Water aerobics and other swimming programs for seniors abound at JCCs. In Austin, the Shalom Austin JCC has an exercise class for people with arthritis, an AARP senior driver class, and all sorts of parties. They’ll send a van to pick up folks who need rides.  The Bender JCC of Greater Washington is about to screen a Multifaith Film Fest that will appeal to seniors throughout the community, while the Lewis S. Wolk JCC in Rochester, NY, has a senior social group featuring games, sing-alongs, and discussions. There’s also a monthly prostate cancer support group meeting at the Wolk JCC.

When activities such as these are disrupted, seniors suffer and community life is impoverished.

It was good to hear President Trump open Tuesday night’s speech to a joint session of Congress by condemning the JCC and cemetery incidents. Earlier in the day, however, according to the Pennsylvania attorney general, Trump made an ambiguous comment to a meeting of state attorneys general suggesting that the incidents might be “reverse” crimes — carried out by perpetrators trying to make others look bad. Some interpreted this as an attempt to portray Democrats or even members of the Jewish community as responsible, and New York’s Senator Charles Schumer denounced Trump’s remark as “absurd and obscene.”

Let’s hope the authorities solve the crimes affecting JCCs and Jewish cemeteries quickly, before community life in America is further damaged.

Impact of Deportations on America’s Seniors: The Great Unknown

We don’t yet know what the full impact of President Trump’s immigration enforcement policy changes will be, but the outlook is stark. According to the New York Times, “President Trump has directed his administration to enforce the nation’s immigration laws more aggressively, unleashing the full force of the federal government to find, arrest and deport those in the country illegally, regardless of whether they have committed serious crimes.” Millions of immigrants are potentially affected.

Little attention is being paid at the moment to what the consequences of sweeping deportations might be for America’s seniors. There is a crying need for data on how many seniors are being cared for by undocumented immigrants. Seniors in assisted living facilities and nursing homes could suffer due to staff shortages. How many seniors trying to age in place are being helped by companions who are undocumented? What will these seniors do when their companions are suddenly gone?  Supermarkets, restaurants, bus services, and taxi companies used by seniors may have difficulty operating.

Americans of all ages in several cities discovered the vital role immigrants play in the service sector on February 16, the “Day Without Immigrants.” That day could soon become the new reality nationwide.

When immigrants are no longer available to care for seniors or provide critical services, where will the burden fall? Most likely on the children — the sandwich generation already stretched to the limit.

The country, and seniors in particular — along with their children — would have benefited from a deeper discussion of the impact increased deportations will have, long before the Trump deportation policy changes were suddenly announced.

Programs Important to Seniors on the Chopping Block

The Trump Administration and Republicans in Congress are starting to float lists of programs to be cut from the federal budget, and several programs dear to seniors are being targeted. Republicans have been after these programs for years, specifically the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Senior Corps. This year, though, with Republicans in charge of both houses of Congress and the Presidency, there is a real danger that the cuts could come to pass.

Seniors all across the country — in rural areas and cities — rely on National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service (TV) for news. culture, information, and entertainment. Public broadcasting keeps us in touch with what’s happening in our country and our world. If we lost it, we would be isolated and far less informed.

The National Endowment for the Arts provides grants that bring art and music to communities big and small. Its accessibility program does great work in making the arts accessible to people with disabilities, older adults, veterans, and people living in institutions.

The National Endowment for the Humanities is currently funding 290 humanities projects in 43 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. This is the organization responsible for Ken Burns’ series, The Civil War, and it is sponsoring the creation of a website to preserve Studs Terkel’s interviews with Carl Sagan, Bob Dylan, Maya Angelou, and many others who have shaped our culture. In 2016, Common Sense for Seniors staff led a seminar on aging at the Yates County History Center with support from the New York Council for the Humanities, which in turn is funded in part by NEH.

The Senior Corps, conceived during the Kennedy Administration, links 270,000 55+ seniors to service opportunities in their communities. The Foster Grandparents program helps seniors serve as role models, mentors, and friends to children in their communities, while the RSVP program gives seniors the chance to use the skills they have acquired over the years, or to develop new skills, in such areas as home renovation and tutoring. In our part of western New York, RSVP-trained volunteers are active in leading Bone Builders groups, staffing food pantries, providing home-delivered meals and medical transportation, serving as Reading Buddies in elementary schools, and offering tax counseling. Senior Companions, also sponsored by the Senior Corps, assist other seniors who need help in performing the daily tasks of living.

These programs so important to seniors account for less than one-tenth of one per cent of federal spending. They are being attacked for ideological reasons rather than for any savings that might result from cutting them. If they are cut, our society will be the poorer for it, and seniors will suffer. So if you’re attending a town hall with your member of Congress, or if you feel moved to make a call to a Senator or Representative’s office, please be sure to speak up for these programs that mean so much to us.

 

Another Straw in the Wind

Here’s another straw in the wind suggesting that the times are becoming unfriendly to seniors.

House Republicans have unveiled preliminary outlines of their health care reform agenda, with the intention of moving forward with major changes in coming weeks. Changes to Medicaid are a high priority, and Republicans are considering either (1) giving states a fixed amount for each person enrolled in Medicaid or (2) giving states block grants to carry out the Medicaid program as each state sees fit.

Either choice could be a serious problem for the 4.6 million seniors with limited incomes who have dual eligibility for both Medicare and Medicaid. Medicare pays for their hospitalizations and physician services, but Medicaid is vital to these seniors for coverage of nursing facility care, prescription drugs, eyeglasses, and hearing aids.

The cost of skilled care in a nursing home or assisted living facility is a great worry for seniors and their families. Many simply do not have the resources to pay for either. Others have some resources, but not enough to pay for long term care. Typically, a senior in this situation who falls ill may be sent to a rehab facility after a hospital stay for the 100 days that Medicare allows, and then have to stay on or move to another facility at their own expense. With the average cost of a nursing home at $6,235 per month, and assisted living at $3,500, it doesn’t take long for even middle class seniors to deplete whatever savings they may have.

But the saving grace today is that once their resources are depleted, seniors can enroll in Medicaid. They are allowed to keep their house, if they have one, and they don’t have to bankrupt their children to pay for their care. Medicaid will take care of them.

If Congress limits the Medicaid amount available per person, or limits the states to block grants, Medicaid may no longer be able to meet its promise to care for seniors. According to the New York Times, “About 60 percent of the costs of traditional Medicaid come from providing nursing home care and other types of care for the elderly and those with disabilities.” With the percentage that high, seniors are almost certain to be hit by any reduction in Medicaid resources.

Seniors are worried about what the Republican Congress might eventually do to Medicare, and rightly so. But for the moment, Congress and the President don’t seem ready to take on that popular program. They may never be ready. Nonetheless, seniors should be alert to the dangers the Medicaid program faces. They could be hurt by these changes, and their children could be hurt as well.

 

 

Finances: Seniors Must Be Ever-Vigilant

The political changes that have taken place in the united States heighten the need for seniors to be vigilant with respect to their finances and their retirement savings.

In April 2017, an Obama-era Labor Department regulation known as the “fiduciary rule” had been slated to take effect. Under that rule, financial advisors, when advising clients on their retirement savings, would be required to put the interests of the clients first. Many sell financial products, such as annuities, on which they earn commissions, but the new rule would forbid advisors from receiving commissions that create a conflict of interest with their fiduciary responsibility to their clients.

However, on February 3, President Trump called for a review of the fiduciary rule, and the expectation is that his administration will prevent it from coming into force. Fortunately, many seniors have already moved their retirement savings into index funds at Vanguard and similar firms, where management fees are very low and commissions are not an issue. Moreover, some financial services firms are moving to fee-only advisory services and giving up on commissions altogether. Nonetheless, the Obama administration estimated that conflicts of interest on the part of financial advisors take an estimated $17 billion per year out of the IRAs and 401(k)s of American citizens.

The fiduciary rule would have offered an important protection to retirement savers, but since it will likely not come into force, seniors are going to have to fend for themselves, as ever. They will have to take care to seek out a truly independent financial advisor — one who charges a fee and earns no commissions from the products he or she recommends. This means asking tough questions at the outset, but the results will be worth it.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress are moving to do away with or sharply restrict the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. This is the watchdog agency that uncovered the scam at Wells Fargo Bank.  As the Bureau put it, “Spurred by sales targets and compensation incentives, [Wells Fargo] employees boosted sales figures by covertly opening accounts and funding them by transferring funds from consumers’ authorized accounts without their knowledge or consent, often racking up fees or other charges.” Many, including Senators Susan Collins and Clair McCaskill of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, suspect that the bogus account scheme specifically targeted seniors.

The Consumer Protection Bureau also took action against the Navy Federal Credit Union, which had been “making false threats about debt collection to its members, which include active-duty military, retired servicemembers, and their families.”

How can seniors protect themselves against these sorts of scams if the Bureau disappears or is weakened? That’s going to be tough, but if you suspect something fishy, complain loudly and be sure to let your representatives in Congress know.

Republicans in Congress are also trying to prevent California, Illinois and other states from taking measures to help workers at companies that don’t offer retirement plans to set up their own retirement accounts. In California,for example, according to the New  York Times, “participating employees would have a small percentage of pay deducted from their paychecks, unless they opted out. Those amounts would be pooled and managed by investment professionals chosen by the state in a bidding process; the plan would be overseen by a board of government and business leaders appointed by the governor and the Legislature.” Some financial firms seem to see this as an encroachment on their turf.

These are just some of the straws in the wind indicating that the times are unfriendly to seniors.  We must be vigilant to protect our interests.