Helpful Resources for Seniors Surviving on Social Security
The Golden Years Mirage
For many seniors, the “Golden Years” is just a mirage. In your working life, the idea of retiring, living comfortably and enjoying yourself always appeared on the horizon like an oasis in the desert. Once you got there, however, you found only struggle.
Inflation, low-wage jobs, health issues, improper planning, the recent financial crisis or dozens of other reasons now find you just scratching by rather than savoring this time comfortably.
Like many seniors in this country, you are in survival mode. Some of you have been barely surviving for years. Others, like the 10,000 Americans who turn 65 every day, are just now facing the reality.
Many of you are surviving on only Social Security month-to-month.
The Retirement Reality
Let's be clear: many retirees or soon-to-be retirees are in fine shape. They've worked at good-paying jobs for decades, saved through 401Ks, and have their homes paid off.
But there's another group in a much different situation. Consider that nine out of ten Americans 65 and older are receiving Social Security. And the average monthly Social Security benefit for those 65 and older is $1,262. Many receive much less than that.
According to the Social Security Administration, 53% of married couples and 74% of those unmarried receive 50% or more of their income from Social Security.
Further, 23% of married couples and about 46% of unmarried seniors rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their income.
The median income for seniors 65-74 is $36,320; if you’re over 74 that drops to $25,417 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And 12% of those 65 and older are living at the poverty level.
Here are some other eye-openers from the latest Employee Benefit Research Institute Retirement Confidence Survey, which surveys both workers and retirees:
- Only 66% of workers have saved for retirement, down from 75% in 2009
- Nearly 40% of retirees have a problem with their level of debt. As an example, only 52% said they could come up with $2,000 for an unexpected emergency within a month
- 28% of workers who responded said they had less than $1,000 saved for retirement
Why Seniors Shouldn't Worry About Old Debts
How Seniors Spend Their Money
How does your spending compare with these numbers?
Those 65 and older typically spend their total household income as follows:
- Personal Insurance and Pensions: 5.1%
- Healthcare: 13.2%
- Transportation: 14.2%
- Housing: 35.4%
- Food: 12.4%
- Other: 19.7%
If you are living on government benefits alone, your housing is likely 40% or more of your total income.
Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
If you are receiving Social Security alone, consider applying for SSI. This federal benefit is available to those 65 and older, the disabled and the blind who have limited income and resources.
The average monthly benefit for an individual is $710 (2013) and $1,066 for a couple. Some states add an additional small supplement to these amounts.
You can find the specific requirements here.
You probably wouldn't be reading this article if your house was paid off, or you didn't have a rent payment. Bottom line: Housing is your biggest expense. And not only is it a big expense, it's also a crushing burden for many seniors.
The most prevalent house burden is cost as 40% of senior households had housing costs exceeding 30% of household income. The other housing issues are physically inadequate housing such as overcrowding, major upkeep problems, and a lack complete plumbing.
Many of the senior living options available to retirees can be expensive depending on your needs and where you plan to live. For example, if you are mostly independent but need help with some activities of daily living (ADLs), an assisted living facility is an option. The average that most seniors pay for a stay here is a lot of times less than what current housing expenses can be.
Options for independent living seniors abound. These are primarily 55+ communities that offer a number of amenities and living choices from mobile homes to condos to single family homes. At prices ranging from $1,500 to $5,000 a month, these aren't always options from seniors living solely on Social Security.
Affordable Senior Housing
Finding affordable senior housing may be one of the biggest challenges facing seniors and their loved ones. The largest provider of affordable housing in the country is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
HUD provides nearly 1 million seniors with housing through its programs including: public housing, multifamily subsidized housing and housing vouchers.
- Housing vouchers (formerly known as Section 8) provides rental assistance in the private housing market. These vouchers are linked to specific properties run by local Public Housing Agencies (PHAs)
- Multifamily subsidized houses are private homes subsidized by HUD and offered to low income individuals and families for rent. The Section 202 program is provided specifically for the elderly and disabled to enable them to live as independently as possible. These communities typically include services such as housekeeping, transportation, and counseling.
- Public housing is rental housing for low income families, seniors and the disabled. Local PHAs manage these properties. Because of the great demand for these properties, there is often a long waiting list (2-5 years), particularly in urban areas.
Click here for a list of contacts by state for these programs.
You can also search HUD's Multifamily Inventory of Units for the Elderly and Persons with Disabilities here: Keep in mind that this list was last updated in 2010. It will not reflect the most up-to-date availability.
To learn more about these and other HUD programs, as well as qualifications and application instructions, visit our HUD-Sponsored Senior Housing Programs page.
In addition to HUD-sponsored senior housing, some communities have created their own senior residences funded locally. The best way to learn about these housing options is to contact your local AAA.
About 40 million seniors receive help from the nation's largest health insurance program, Medicare. If you are at least 64 years and 9 months old, you can apply online for Medicare benefits with this online application. You can also apply in person at your local Social Security office.
Because Medicare only pays for the first 80% of medical costs, many seniors need additional help paying the remaining 20%, copayments, deductibles or even the Medicare premium itself.
In addition to Medicare, qualifying people 65 and older with limited resources can receive Medicaid. It provides coverage for inpatient and outpatient care, including costs that Medicare does not cover such as nursing home care and personal care services.
Medicaid, however, does not cover prescription drugs, eyeglasses or preventative care. But it can pay Medicare deductibles, the Medicare premium and the charges not by Medicare.
Each state's Medicaid program is different. To apply, contact your state's Medicaid program.
The following programs offer a number of ways for seniors to save thousands every year on healthcare costs.
Medicare Savings Program
If you need help paying your Medicare premiums, you may qualify for one of four Medicare Savings Programs.
- Qualified Medicare Beneficiary (QMB) Program
- Specified Low-Income Medicare Beneficiary (SLMB) Program
- Qualifying Individual (QI) Program
- Qualified Disabled and Working Individuals (QDWI) Program
If you meet certain conditions, these programs may also pay Medicare Part A and Part B deductibles and copayments. And if you qualify for a QI, SLMB or QMB program, you are automatically entitled to Extra Help (see below).
To see income and resource limits and find out how to apply, go to the Medicare Savings Program page.
If you, like many seniors, need help paying monthly premiums, annual deductibles, and prescription drug co-payments, Social Security's Extra Help program may be able to assist.
The program for Medicare recipients can be worth an extra $4,000 a year if you meet certain requirements. You will pay no premiums, no deductibles, and no more than $6.60 for each drug your plan covers.
Annual income for an individual cannot exceed $17,235 or $23,265 for a married couple. Even if your income exceeds these thresholds, you still may be able to get some help.
You can apply online at for the Extra Help program here.
- Adult day primary care (including doctor and recreational therapy nursing services)
- Emergency services
- Home care
- Hospital care
- Laboratory/x-ray services
- Medical specialty services
- Nursing home care
- Nutritional counseling
- Prescription drugs
For more information, go to Medicare's PACE page.
State and Local Programs
In addition to the above, many health-related programs exist at the state and local level. These programs are often funded through the Department of Health and Human Services. Though some programs exist through local funding.
Arizona's AAA in Maricopa County offers the SAIL (Senior Adult Independent Living) program. SAIL provides services such as home health aides, home delivered meals, home nursing, homemaking services, etc.
Health Insurance Counseling
Another big issue for seniors across all socioeconomic levels is resolving health insurance claims, understanding bills, and simply filing for benefits. It's complicated and bewildering.
To help seniors, the State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) offers local counseling and assistance to people with Medicare. Each state has its own counseling program, often listed under a different name. For example, the Old Dominion state has the Virginia Insurance Counseling and Assistance Program (VICAP).
“That's [VICAP] one of our most popular services,” says Elyse Thierry, publicist for the Jefferson Area Board for Aging, which serves Charlottesville, VA along with a number of outlying rural areas. “It's not just for people who can't afford help. We've had doctors come in confused about their medical bills.”
Trained VICAP volunteers assist seniors with billing statements, resolving claims and selecting the right health insurance coverage. “People walk in with file folders and looks on their faces of sheer panic. And they walk out with little smiles,” says Thierry.
Closing the Prescription Drug Gap
With Obamacare, the prescription drug “donut hole”—the gap in coverage when your total drug costs reach the coverage limit—is gradually being closed. You can see a breakdown and learn more about prescription drugs reading Medicare, Prescription Drugs & the Healthcare Law.
If you've ever had a toothache, you know what an unbelievably miserable experience it is. Unfortunately for seniors on Medicare, their options for dental care and insurance are somewhat limited unless enrolled in an Advantage Plan. So it's not surprising that dental care is a large unmet need for low income seniors.
“Dental care is huge. It's just a big, big problem,” says Kristin Durso, of Boulder County's (CO) Aging Services Division. “Dental care is extremely expensive and it's really tough for seniors to go in and pay for dental care.” Durso cites dental care as one of the county's biggest unmet needs for seniors.
Seniors do, however, have options thanks to the generosity of dental professionals across the country. The following organizations provide a network of dental services from volunteer dentists, hygienists and labs.
The Dental Lifeline Network (formerly the National Foundation of Dentistry for the Handicapped) provides “access to comprehensive dental services for people with disabilities or who are elderly or medically at-risk.” The national network has 15,000 volunteer dentists and 3,200 volunteer labs. Call 1.888.471.6334.
Dentistry From The Heart (DFTH) is nonprofit that provides “free dental care to those in need.” Every year volunteer dentists and hygienists donate their time for events around the country. Click here to see if there’s an event near you.
Another resource for finding free or inexpensive dental (and medical) care is Freemedicalcamps.com.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
There are nearly 48 million Americans on food stamps also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). It is the country's largest food safety net.
Nine percent of SNAP benefits go to seniors. But only one-third of eligible seniors are receiving benefits according to The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). There are several reasons for this.
Some seniors have mobility and technological barriers, while for others, there is a stigma (76% of seniors surveyed) attached to receiving benefits. Some mistakenly believe that the benefit amount is too small to bother with. But in fact in 2009, the average monthly benefit for those 60 and older was $102, according to FRAC.
To find out if you may be eligible, an easy-to-use online resource. You can also see the eligibility requirements as well as how much you may receive in benefits, here.
Other Food Assistance Resources
A good starting place to find food assistance programs in your state is at Benefitscheckup.org, a free service of the National Council on Aging. Here you'll find more than 1,650 public and private benefits programs around the country.
For example, if you're a California resident, you'd find information on the CalFresh Program, which helps qualifying individuals and families buy food at grocery stores, senior centers and with services such as Meals on Wheels.
Some other food assistance programs include The Commodity Supplemental Food Programs (CSFP), and the Seniors Farmer's Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP). The CSFP provides qualifying seniors a monthly food package.
The SFMNP provides food coupons for use at farmers' markets, roadside stands and community programs that grow fruits. Information on your state’s SFMNP program (if they participate) can be found here.
The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) is a federal program that provides low income seniors emergency food and nutrition assistance at no cost. You can pick up foods local food pantries or soup kitchens. To find contacts for your state, go to the Food Distribution Programs page.
Finally, you can call The National Hunger Hotline (1-866-348-6479) to help you find food where you live. They also have a search tool to help you find food options in your area.
Getting to the doctor, the grocery store and other necessities is crucial for seniors to remain independent. But maintaining a car is not a possibility for many whether due to cost or physical disability. Transportation is particularly acute for rural residents who may live miles from the nearest store, doctor, or pharmacy.
In addition to public options (bus, metro, etc.), many communities provide free or reduced rate transportation options to seniors and the disabled. Local senior centers, Area Agencies on Aging (AAA), and faith-based volunteer driver programs are just some of the sources of senior transportation.
For help finding transportation resources in your area, call 800-677-1116 or click on Eldercare Locator.
To find public transportation options in your area, go to the American Public Transportation Association.
Other Ways to Lower Your Expenses
Learning how to get control of your bills with a budget is one of the best things you can do for yourself financially. Daily Money Management (DMM) programs provide financial assistance to seniors who need help with:
- Paying bills
- Negotiating with creditors
- Balancing a checkbook
- Avoiding scams and fraud
There are a number of DMM providers, some for-profit and some non-profit such as the AARP Money Management Program. This programs “offers daily money management service to help low-income older or disabled people who have difficulty budgeting, paying routine bills, and keeping track of financial matters.”
Right now, the program is only in a limited number of communities. Click here to see if there's an AARP program in your area.
Your local Area Agency on Aging can also help you find a money manager.
You may eligible to receive a lower cost on either home or mobile service. The Lifeline Program partners with nearly 2,000 telecommunications companies across the country to offer discounts directly to consumers. Go to Lifelinesupport.org and/or FCC.gov for more information.
Other inexpensive cell phone options to consider include Consumer Cellular and TracFone.
Tax Preparation Assistance
Did you know there's a tax credit for the elderly? That you can deduct some of your medical expenses? That you can you deduct assisted living expenses? If you don’t know the answers, the IRS certainly does. And they're here to help…no really!
IRS-certified volunteers provide free tax help to qualifying seniors with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) Programs.
VITA volunteers “provide free basic income tax return preparation with electronic filing to qualified individuals [those making $51,000 or less] in local communities.” TCE offers free tax help, specializing in those 60 and older.
For more information on these programs and others, visit the IRS.
The AARP offers a Tax-Aide counseling program. For more information, visit the AARP's website or call 1-888-227-7669.
Property Tax Exemptions
If you are a senior homeowner, you may be entitled to a property tax exemption or a reduction in the tax assessed value of your home.
For example in Colorado, those 65 and older can exempt 50% of the first $200,000 of actual value of the residence. The state also has a property tax deferment that allows seniors to defer property taxes until the property is sold, rented or the owner dies.
These exemptions vary by state and community. Contact your state or county tax division to find out the details.
Home Heating and Cooling Help
The Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIEAP) is federally-funded program to help low income households with their energy bills. The program operates in all 50 states, the District of Colombia,” Indian tribes and all U.S. territories. LIEAP provides assistance in the following ways:
- Bill payment help
- Energy crisis help
- Weatherization and energy-related home repairs
Families who have received weatherization services have reduced their annual energy bills by an average of $437.
To find out more information on your state's LIEAP program, go here. You can also call 1-866-674-6327.
Another program is the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP). This “enables low-income families to permanently reduce their energy bills by making their homes more energy efficient.” The weatherization improvements provided add up to an average energy bill savings of $437 a year.
Apply for weatherization assistance here.
Many communities across the country have free or low cost legal service providers to assist seniors and those with low income. The services provided vary by organization but may include help with:
- Problems with Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, SSI, and other government benefits
- Living wills and power of attorney
- Consumer debt problems including bankruptcy, collections, and repossession
- Housing issues such as foreclosures, landlord/tenant issues, etc.
- Family law
The National Legal Resource Center's listing of non-profit legal service providers by state.
Legalhotlines.org also has a listing of senior legal resources by state.