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.




Book Giveaway with Libations

We held our Great Book Giveaway with Libations party over the weekend. Friends came and took away many bags of books. Mystery, history, music, travel — you name it — all went out the door.

We spent several days culling our collection before the big event. and we pulled a few old favorites back the night before. But we have no regrets. Books that served us well are now being read and enjoyed by others. Some of them will likely wind up at the Penn Yan Public Library annual book sale in a couple of months. That’s where the leftovers are going too. We’re packing them up tomorrow and storing them in the garage of a Friend of the Library.

We had a great time at the Giveaway and thank everyone who came.

And so, the downsizing continues. We’ve made a lot of progress, but the place doesn’t exactly echo yet.






















Living Life to the Full

florence_foster_jenkinsWe enjoyed seeing Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in Florence Foster Jenkins at the Smith Opera House recently. Florence lived life to the full. Yes — she deceived herself in thinking she could sing well enough to perform in Carnegie Hall; but she went ahead anyway and died happy. Simon Helberg, whom you’ll recognize from the Big Bang Theory, put in an excellent and empathetic performance as the pianist. Nina Arianda, playing the floozie, sure can dance! Here’s the video.

Harry Belafonte is another senior living life to the full. Belafonte will turn 90 on March 1, and has just been profiled in the New York Times. He has shaped our times, and many of us seniors carry his songs in our heads.


Harry Belafonte. Photo by David Shankbone.

Belafonte shares our fears and concerns, telling the Times, “I’ve never known this country to be so” — he paused before saying the word — “racist as it is at this moment,” he said. “It’s amazing, after all that we have been through.”

And like may of us, he feels he’s not quite done.

“It’s my last chance to say whatever I feel the need to say. And I think I’m formulating what that utterance should be. What have I not said that needs to be said more forcefully and more precisely?”

Here at Common Sense for Seniors, we’ll be listening.


The Books – Getting There

img_2120It’s no secret that we are hoarders of books, as we have come clean about this in our posts over the last two years. It is also known that we are fast approaching countdown, the time when we have to decide what to let go of and what to take with us to the down-sized townhouse.  To this end, we have been going over the books cached away around the house: the study, the basement, the “bonus room,” even the piles on the bedside tables.

In recent weeks, we have taken books that were subjects of our church study group to the church library. Ray has found a home for history books at the local history center, and I have given a number of children’s books (along with art supplies) to the local ARC, which supports children and adults with developmental disabilities. These placements seem right.  But, what about the remainder?

We are in debt to wonderful friend Becky who years ago shared with us her approach to leaving a home.  Friends were invited to visit and take away an item. No bringing of hostess gifts; the requirement was that guests help with the process of saying good-bye.

Thanks to Becky’s sharing, we have invited friends for wine and cheese and a “books takeaway.”  Doing this will allow us to see many friends whom we have not had a chance to enjoy properly, what with our goings and returns these past many months. A second boon is the pleasure we will have in passing along books that we have treasured enough to carry them with us for many years. Knowing that they will go to good homes, I am inclined to take a more critical look at the books that I think I must keep and those that I can let go of, knowing that they may be chosen in the same way that I did originally.

Speaking with friend Libby today, we talked about passing along/divesting ourselves of the stuff of our lives. We touched on real linens and family silver, among other things. For the most part, the next generations do not want them. We agreed that the rummage sale was the place for them, especially as the proceeds would benefit a worthy cause. Still, I find that books are another matter.

Another friend, Jeanie, shared in an exchange which I cannot locate easily but the substance of which I can render. Speaking of books and letting go of them, she replied, “Some of my best friends are characters I have met in books.” That about sums it up. I guess I’ll keep the best friends.

We’ll let you know how we do with the “takeaway.”


PPIs and Dementia: A Link?

I’ve been bothered by this article in Scientific American, which argues that regular use of proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), is associated with a number of health problems, including dementia, heart disease, and kidney disease. PPIs are used to combat gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and are very widely prescribed among seniors. I take generic omeprazole myself, but PPIs also include Nexium, Prevacid, and Prilosec.

I’m not sure I could get through the night without my omeprazole, but I sure would like to avoid dementia. Particularly bothersome is the inability of scientists so far to identify any causal pathway that might explain why people taking PPIs tend to have higher rates of dementia. Perhaps it’s that lower levels of stomach acid due to PPI use inhibit the absorption of vitamin B12, needed for brain health. I’m already taking a B12 supplement, so maybe I’m OK. Or maybe not.

Another theory is that seniors tend to take many drugs — a phenomenon known as
“polypharmacy” — and that this in itself has been shown to be associated with memory loss. So the problem might not be PPIs in particular.  Some suggest that people practicing polypharmacy are likely to be people who see physicians regularly, increasing their chances of being diagnosed with something or other, including dementia. Maybe that’s the problem.

Anyway, I’m planning do discuss the PPI issue with my own physician, next time I’m in.