Wednesday, September 27, 2017

How to Hire a Home Care Agency

At some point, nearly everyone who lives long enough is going to need a little extra help.  If you or your loved one does not need to live in a skilled nursing or memory care facility, a home caregiver may be able to provide all the assistance you or your family member needs.  Whether you are hiring the person for yourself, a spouse or a parent, what are some of the issues you need to consider in choosing the right caregiver and agency?

Choose a Licensed Caregiver Agency

Although it may be tempting to hire a private individual as a caregiver, it can be a risky move.  Most district attorneys and law enforcement officials have dealt with cases in which valuables or money were stolen by unlicensed, private caregivers.  In addition, an unlicensed caregiver is more likely to ask for "loans" or not be qualified to provide proper care, especially in an emergency.  They may have had little or no training or experience in dealing with medications, lifting people who have fallen, knowing when to call 911 or handling other situations.  A better solution is to deal directly with an agency which is bonded and responsible for training and assisting you in choosing the appropriate employee for your situation.

What to Look for in a Licensed Caregiver Agency

The State of California has a Home Care Services Consumer Protection Act which requires agencies to meet certain requirements.  Even if you live in another state, these are guidelines you should look for in any agency you may choose to employ:

*  They should conduct background checks on their employees
*  They should provide an employee dishonesty bond
*  They should provide training (although in California only 5 hours are required)
*  They should carry liability insurance
*  They should keep records on any reports of suspected abuse
*  They should provide workers compensation coverage for their employees

What to Look for in the Caregiver Who Comes to Your Home

Whether you are hiring the caregiver for yourself or a family member, you want to make sure they will be a good fit and able to handle the job.  You should insist on meeting the caregiver before they begin working alone with you or your family member.  There are certain issues to consider:

*  You need to recognize that a caregiver is NOT there to provide medical care.  The caregiver is employed to provide needed assistance with activities of daily living such as grocery shopping, cooking, feeding, bathing, dressing, dispensing medication at the appropriate times, or moving the client from the bed to a wheelchair or making similar transitions.  They may also drive them to medical appointments and social engagements.

*  The caregiver should be a self-starter, recognize when something needs to be done, and be willing and energetic enough to do it.

*  The ideal caregiver should have a caring personality.  They should smile often, be willing to give a hug occasionally, listen to repetitive stories, and laugh at the funny ones.  Since they may be the only person their client sees regularly, they need to be able to fill of the role of both caregiver and friend.

*  They should be willing and able to keep their client as active as possible, helping with their physical therapy exercises and enabling them attend their favorite social events or fitness classes.

*  The caregiver should be observant and intuitive, able to recognize when "something doesn't feel right."  They should be comfortable letting other family members or medical personnel know if they suspect there is a problem and be ready to call 911 in an emergency.  They should also be good communicators and able to explain any changes they see. 

*  They should be diplomatic and discrete in dealing with other family members, especially if their client is dying, goes on hospice or becomes stressed when certain relatives are around.

What You Can Do to Help the Caregiver

Whether you hire a caregiver for yourself or a family member, there are steps you can take to make their job easier and more beneficial for the client.

* Give the patient the opportunity to have input in choosing the caregiver.  They are the one who will spend their days with this person and you want to hire someone they will enjoy being with.  The patient also needs to be involved in compiling the instructions which will be given to the caregiver, so they feel they still have ultimate control over how they will spend the final months or years of their life.
*  Provide the caregiver with a detailed list of medications and when each one should be taken.
*  Provide a list of the patient's favorite foods and recipes, as well as any mealtime preferences and food allergies.
*  Explain sleeping, television, music and other preferences to the caregiver.
*  Make sure the caregiver knows who is and is not allowed in the home with the client.
*  Have the physical therapist or other medical personnel show the caregiver any exercises the client should be doing, the proper way to move the person and other important details of their care.
*  Give the caregiver a list of emergency numbers ... family members, doctors, therapists, etc.
*  Put all this information and anything else which you think will be important in a binder which the  caregiver can refer to if they have any questions.  This is especially important because occasionally the caregiver may become ill and a substitute caregiver will take their place. 

You should also make arrangements to have bills paid, taxes done and other business matters handled by someone other than the caregiver.  The caregiver should not be expected to take care of these things, so another family member, conservator, or public guardian will need to handle these matters if you or your family member becomes unable to handle their financial affairs.

If you need more information about retirement planning, common medical issues, where to retire, Social Security, Medicare, changing family relationships and more, use the tabs or pull down menu at the top of the page to find links to hundreds of additional articles.

Watch for my book, Retirement Awareness: 10 Steps to a Comfortable Retirement, which will be released by Griffin Publishing in 2018.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Social Security Myths and Misunderstandings

We have all read a host of discouraging news stories about Social Security, including that it is going bankrupt, people are living too long, and everyone should collect their benefits as soon as possible.  Many of these articles are unhelpful because they are based on distortions and myths about Social Security. These misunderstandings can cause people to make poor financial decisions which may hurt them for the rest of their lives.  As a result, I was pleased to see an article addressing these Social Security myths in the September 11, 2017 issue of the highly reputable business newspaper, Barron's.

You may want to look for the issue yourself at your local news stand or library.  However, here is a brief summary of what they had to say about the six most common myths about Social Security, as well as my comments:

Myth: "Healthy Payment Hikes are Back"

Although the COLA or cost-of-living increase for 2018 will be larger than what retirees have seen in recent years, when it has ranged from 0 to 0.3 percent, it is still smaller than the average increase of 2.6 percent which retirees saw over the past 30 years.  The 2018 COLA will only be 2 percent. Unfortunately, recent increases have been so low that the Senior Citizens League estimates Social Security benefits have lost 30 percent of their purchasing power since 2000.  While any increase at all is better than nothing, many senior citizens are finding that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to survive on Social Security.

Not mentioned in the Barron's article is the fact that all or most of the COLA in recent years has been eaten up by increases in Medicare premiums.  This will be true in 2018, as well, when the Medicare premium for most people will increase to approximately $134.  As a result, many retirees have seen virtually no actual increase in their checks over past few years and that will continue to be true in 2018.

In fact, Medicare increases sometimes jump if your total retirement income rises too much.  Sudden increases in retirement income, because of an unusually large IRA withdrawal or windfall, can cause your Medicare premiums to increase dramatically and retirees should consult their tax attorney and take into consideration all of the financial consequences of a large IRA withdrawal or income increase. However, the Medicare premium increase should only apply to the year following the increase in income, unless it is permanent or continues for several years. This will only apply, however, to people who have a very large increase in their retirement income.

Myth:  "Social Security is Going Broke"

There is NO danger that Social Security will completely run out of money, because people are continually paying into the program.  The trust fund, which supplements the amount brought in by current workers, has enough money to pay full benefits until 2033.  After that, the Social Security Administration could still pay out 77 percent of promised benefits until 2090 and 73 percent of promised benefits after that, just based on the ongoing payroll deductions of the workforce. Those lower payments would only happen if Congress does absolutely nothing to fix the problem. Most experts believe that if Congress increases the amount of Social Security taxes withheld from paychecks, slightly postpones the full retirement age or makes a few other small changes discussed later in this article, full benefits could be paid out for many decades in the future. 

Myth: "American Longevity is the Reason Social Security is Having Financial Problems"

This may surprise many people, but U.S. longevity for people over the age of 65 has not increased very much over the past few years.  In fact, the Barron's article reported that in 2015 longevity for Americans over 65 decreased for the first time in over 20 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  In fact, according to an October 27, 2017 post by @Tad_Doughty, who manages several hundred million dollars in assets:

"The U.S. age-adjusted mortality rate -- a measure of the number of deaths per year -- rose 1.2 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to the Society of Actuaries.  That's the first year-over-year increase since 2005, and only the second rise greater than 1 percent since 1980.  At the same time that Americans' life expectancy is stalling, public policy and career tracts mean millions of U.S. workers are waiting longer to call it quits.  The age at which people can claim their full Social Security benefits is gradually moving up, from 65 for those retiring in 2002 to 67 in 2027."

In other words, people are retiring later and dying sooner.

The real problem in maintaining Social Security payments is that fewer children are being born and this will cause a sharp decline in the number of working adults by 2035.  This is the actual reason why it may be necessary to slightly increase Social Security taxes or make other changes.

Myth:  "Social Security is Too Dangerous for Congress to Touch"

The Barron's article indicated that this is a myth because Congress has made changes to Social Security in the past, most notably in 1983.  According to Barron's, any one of the following possible changes, or a combination of them, would solve the problem:

* Decrease the promised benefits by 20% for those who have not yet retired OR
* Increase the Social Security payroll tax, which is split between the employer and employee, from 12.4 percent to 15.2 percent OR
* Raise the income cap on Social Security taxes above its current level of $127,200. In 2018, the income cap will rise slightly to $128,700.  However, over 18 percent of earned income is currently exempt from Social Security taxes.
* Not mentioned in the Barron's article, but something which has been suggested by other experts, is the idea of further postponing the full age of retirement so that people are not eligible for their full benefits until age 68 in 2027 and the increase to age 67 be moved to an earlier date.

If citizens would like to save Social Security, they need to encourage Congress to vote on a Social Security package which would include one of the above changes or a combination of the above changes which would be less extreme than any single recommendation.  For example, they could raise the income cap to $200,000 or more, with significantly larger increases in the income cap in future years.  This would allow them to only slightly raise the payroll tax.

Myth:  "Start Collecting Your Benefits as Young as Possible

While it may be necessary for some people to collect early if they are dying or in such bad health that they can no longer continue to work, the vast majority of people need to worry more about how to maximize their income in their 70s and 80s.  The best way to do this is to postpone collecting as long as possible.  You can learn more about the advantages of waiting by using the benefits calculators on either the AARP or the Social Security websites.

The Barron's article also discussed confusion surrounding complicated schemes for maximizing your benefits by using the restricted application loophole.  However, this loophole only applies to people born prior to Jan. 1, 1954, many of whom are already collecting their Social Security benefits.  An earlier loophole called file-and-suspend has already been closed and the restricted application loophole will close over the next few years.  If the restricted application loophole interests you, you may want to do further research on the benefits of this plan and see if it will work for you.

The most important information which you may glean by reading the full Barron's article, titled "6 Myths of Social Security," is that the current Social Security problems are solvable, if Congress is willing to make the necessary minor adjustments.  In addition, most people would benefit by postponing their benefits as long as possible in order to maximize their income in their 70s, 80s and beyond, especially since the value of the benefits have declined dramatically in purchasing power over the past two decades.

If you are interested in learning more about Social Security, Medicare, financial planning, where to retire, common medical problems and more, use the tabs or pull down menu at the top of the page to find links to hundreds of additional articles.

Watch for my book, Retirement Awareness: 10 Steps to a Comfortable Retirement, which will be published by Griffin Publishing early in 2018.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Financial Solutions for Retirement Problems

The best laid retirement plans can sometimes be derailed by a variety of financial challenges. Sometimes you simply may not have planned well.  You may have over-estimated your future income and underestimated your future expenses.  However, even if you have planned carefully and spent years trying to put something aside for retirement, a recession, high medical bills or a family emergency can result in a major setback.

The good news is that no matter what the reason for your financial problems, there are actions you can take to salvage your retirement. The most important thing you can do is face the issue head on and take action as soon as you realize you have a problem.  Below are a few common challenges which could hurt your retirement, along with possible financial solutions.

Not Enough Money in Your Retirement Savings Accounts

According to an article titled "Money Missteps" in the April 2017 AARP Bulletin, as recently as 2013 almost 30 percent of U.S. households headed by someone over the age of 55 did not have a retirement savings account or a future pension.  No money saved at all for retirement.

The sooner you recognize and deal with your financial shortfall, the better off you will be.  As frequently mentioned in other posts in this blog, you have a number of choices:  Continue working until age 70 before you start to collect your Social Security benefits, supplement your Social Security with a part-time job, downsize your home, move to a less expensive area, or get a reverse mortgage (assuming you have equity in a home.)  Most importantly, you want to avoid building up debt in order to finance your retirement.  Eventually, that will only make your situation worse.

You Have Retirement Savings But It is Dropping in Value

As we all discovered during the Recession of 2009, sometimes our retirement savings accounts can lose money faster than we ever expected.

Depending on your situation, you may want to talk to a financial planner to discuss your overall retirement plan and investment portfolio.  They could recommend moving your savings into a different mutual fund or into a safer, less volatile investment.  In addition, they may suggest you reinvest all the income from your retirement savings and add more money until you are able to re-build the value.   This could delay your retirement plans, but will probably be worth it in the long run.

You Have No Equity in Your Home

Some people hope they will be able to take out a reverse mortgage against their home equity to finance their retirement.  However, what can you do if your home has lost value and you now owe more than it is worth?

If you can afford the house payments and the house is in good repair, you may want to continue making payments until inflation and your payments rebuild your home equity.  It could take a few years, but might be worth it in the long-run.  If it is not an option for you to keep making the payments, you may be able to refinance your home through the Federal Home Affordable Refinance Program at  If you do not qualify, you could try to get your bank to agree to a short sale.  That is less damaging to your credit than waiting for foreclosure.

You are Buried in Debt

Unfortunately, some people experience a job loss, a serious medical problem, a natural disaster or other financial catastrophe in the years just before they hoped to retire ... or right after they have begun their retirement.  If they are too sick or too deeply in debt to recover, they may believe they have no hope to ever retire and/or may have to spend the rest of their life drowning in debt.

Medical bills are the most common reason for bankruptcy in the United States, especially for people who are near retirement age or who have already retired.  If you have suffered a severe financial setback which leaves you deeply in debt, bankruptcy may be the best option for you.  In fact, it may be the only way you can stay out of extreme poverty as you age, and the future financial stress could potentially worsen your health situation.  Talk to a lawyer and see if bankruptcy or debt reorganization is an option for you.  Many well-known figures have had to resort to bankruptcy in order to save their retirement.  Ordinary people should consider this option, as well, especially if you have so much debt that you know you will never be able to pay it off.

You Are Still Supporting Your Children or Grandchildren

An estimated 3 million people over the age of 60 are supporting their grandkids.  An estimated 60 percent of people over the age of 50 are financially supporting an adult child or other relative.  An unknown number of parents and grandparents extend some kind of financial aid to a family member on an irregular basis.  These numbers show that the vast majority of people who are retired or near retirement age are helping to support someone else.  If the burden of supporting other family members is derailing your retirement, you may need outside help in dealing with these problems.

If you are a grandparent supporting your grandchildren, in some states you may qualify to become the foster parent of your grandchildren, which would make you eligible to receive financial aid from the state.  In addition, you may be able to apply for housing vouchers, SNAP (food stamps), and other types of aid.  You are performing a lifesaving service for these children and should not be embarrassed to ask for financial help.

If helping your adult children or other relatives is putting your own well-being and retirement at risk, you may need to solicit assistance in setting boundaries with these people.  You can ask other relatives or your financial advisors to help you explain to these dependents why you are no longer able to give them money.  If you do decide to loan them money, put your agreement in writing and charge interest of at least 2 percent.  If they default, at least you will be able to deduct it as a "non-business bad debt" on your taxes.  However, your best bet is to avoid giving them money in the first place.

If your adult child or other relative is also in a bad financial situation, you may see if you can help them apply for various forms of financial aid ... housing vouchers, food stamps, disability, unemployment, welfare, SSI, etc.  If necessary, take them to your local social services department or homeless shelter to see if there are programs in your community which can help people who are homeless or nearly homeless get back on their feet.  Your goal is to make these relatives less dependent on you and more dependent on themselves or government aid.  After all, you will not be around to support them forever.  At some point, they need to have a plan to support themselves, even if that means they need to rely on disability and food stamps.

If you are looking for additional information about retirement planning, common medical problems, Social Security, Medicare and more, use the tabs or pull-down menu at the top of this page to find links to hundreds of additional articles.

If you want an overview of retirement planning tips, watch for my book Retirement Awareness: 10 Steps to a Comfortable Retirement, which will be available from Griffin Publishing in 2018.

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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Sonata Senior Living in Florida

Are you looking for a senior living solution in Florida which would allow you to transition from Independent Living, to Assisted Living or Memory Care, as needed?  Whether you are looking for a residence for yourself, your spouse or your parent, the nine Sonata Senior Living communities in Florida could be a good choice.  They provide a range of living arrangements, 24-hour care and high quality amenities, including a variety of fun and interesting activities.

Where are the Sonata Communities Located?

Below is a list of the various communities and the services they offer.  They are all located in Florida:

Sonata Viera in Melbourne - Assisted Living
Sonata West in Winter Garden - Independent Living & Assisted Living 
Serenades in Winter Garden - Assisted Living & Memory Care
Serenades in Longwood - Assisted Living & Memory Care
Serenades in The Villages - Assisted Living & Memory Care
Sonata South in Boca Raton - Assisted Living & Memory Care
Sonata South in Boynton Beach - Assisted Living & Memory Care
Sonata South in Coconut Creek - Assisted Living & Memory Care
Sonata South in Delray Beach - Assisted Living & Memory Care

As you can see, their communities offer memory care facilities on the same campus or nearby.  These facilities are arranged in home-like villages or neighborhoods designed to help people with dementia feel more comfortable.  Most residents begin their Sonata lifestyle in an independent or assisted living apartment.

Resort Style Florida Retirement

Sonata West is their newest community and will have both independent living and assisted
living facilities.   The management also emphasizes what a great value it is.  Compared to many other senior living facilities, it does appear to be an affordable option.

Unlike many Continuing Care Retirement Communities, Sonata does not require the residents to "buy in."  The monthly rental fee includes a private apartment with full-size appliances (including your own washer and dryer), cable TV and internet, regular housekeeping and linen services, flexible dining options (including continental breakfasts and a variety of options for lunch and dinner), weekend brunches, scheduled transportation and other amenities.  If you no longer drive, you can use their "At Your Service" chauffeur service to go shopping, to doctor visits or the theater.  They even have an activities director to help plan parties, entertainment, outings and special events for the residents.  This is not a boring, old-fashioned senior apartment complex or nursing home.

The Sonata Harmony Assisted Living residences are also rentals and include all of the services listed above, as well as a personalized care plan and a 24/7 staff, including trained nurses, whose goal is to encourage physical, emotional and spiritual wellness.  People who need a little extra help are sure to feel pampered in a Sonata Harmony community.

The Sonata Serenades Memory Care facilities are focused on helping residents feel as normal as possible.  They are designed in neighborhoods or villages with extra safety features and dementia certified caregivers and staff.  Their design elements were chosen to be soothing and safe, while giving residents some freedom to roam around the community, including the outdoor spaces.  They have open floor plans, color-coding (to help residents find their way around), and reduced glare lighting.  They also have special programs to keep the residents active, well, and able to enjoy the best quality of life possible.

All the facilities encourage socialization through the use of elements such as front porches, courtyards and multipurpose areas.

Estimated Cost of Florida Senior Living Facilities

In addition to being able to rent rather than buy into a Sonata Senior Living Community, there are other factors which may help you afford to live in one of these facilities.  The facility directors will be happy to discuss options with you.  The amount of your rent will be calculated on a base price plus the cost of your specific level of care.  Therefore, the exact monthly rental will vary from resident to resident.

While Sonata does not list their base rent on their website, another website,, does give an estimate of what it costs to live in an independent living apartment in the state of Florida.  According to their estimates, prices range from $1,174 to $4,700, with the average cost of independent living being around $2,545 a month.  The average cost of assisted living in Florida is estimated at $2,877 a month.  The average cost of memory care is $3,817.  As stated above, your individual fees could be higher, depending on the amount of personal care you need and the quality of the facilities.  However, these averages will help you determine if you personally believe you are paying a fair price to live a Sonata community, especially considering all they have to offer.

Solutions to Help You Pay for Your Care

The primary way to cover your costs, of course, is your normal retirement income.  Social Security, pensions, and interest or dividends from your retirement savings should cover a portion of the cost, if not all of it.  With most of your expenses included in your monthly rental, you will not need a great deal of additional income above your rent.  Your only additional expenses would be the cost of your Medicare premium, medications, co-pays, deductibles, other insurance, auto expenses (if you still drive), incontinence products, haircuts and similar personal expenses, plus whatever you might want for gifts, travel, shopping and similar luxuries.  In addition, residents should be prepared for their monthly rent to rise an average of 4 to 6 percent each year.

If you are selling a home when you move in, the equity in your home could be invested or used to purchase an annuity, and that income can be added to your Social Security benefits and other sources of income to also help cover your monthly rent.

If you have a long-term care insurance policy, it may be used to help pay the extra cost of your memory care and assisted living services in the Serenades communities.

If you, or your spouse, is a veteran, you may qualify for a special long-term care benefit of $1,000 to $2,000 a month to help cover your costs, but only if you need assistance with dressing, undressing, bathing, toileting, transitioning, or eating.

If you have tapped all other sources of income and still need a little financial assistance from other family members, the money they contribute can sometimes be used as a deductible medical expense on their federal income taxes.  They would need to consult with the CPA who handles their taxes in order to confirm they can qualify for this deduction.  However, if it works out that they can take the deduction, it could make it a little easier for your adult children or other family members to help you out financially.

How to Get More Information

If you believe that you or a family member would benefit by living in one of the Sonata Senior Living Communities, you can get more information at:

If you are interested in more information about where to retire in the United States or abroad, financial planning, Social Security, Medicare, common medical problems, travel and more, use the tabs or pull down menu at the top of the page to find links to hundreds of additional articles.

Watch for my book, Retirement Awareness: 10 Steps to a Comfortable Retirement, which will be published by Griffin Publishing in 2018.

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Photo credit: Photo of new Sonata West facility from the Sonata Facebook page