Eric Douglas Published

Organization Connects Seniors With Retirement Savings Services

Older Asian couple sits on a couch looking over financial documuments.
A real problem facing many older adults is having enough money for their retirement.
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A real problem facing many older adults is having enough money for their retirement.

News Director Eric Douglas spoke with Josh Hodges, the chief customer officer for the National Council on Aging (NCOA), to learn about the help that is available for retirees and caregivers. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Douglas: Do me a favor, start out by giving me a quick introduction of who you are and what you do.

Hodges: Josh Hodges, I’m the chief customer officer at the National Council on Aging, or NCOA. We’re a national nonprofit, have been around for about 75 years, focusing on helping people age well. That can mean a bunch of different things. We have programs on the health aspects, focusing on helping people live healthy, planning for that stage of their life. We have employment opportunities.

We also have a lot of opportunities around economic security to help people have the money they need in retirement, help them stretch their dollars. I’ve been at NCOA for about four and a half, almost five years. Before that I spent over 10 years with the federal government doing aging programs.

Douglas: What are some of the tips that people need to know, as they’re getting older, as they’re getting into retirement age, to care for themselves and plan for the future? 

Hodges: Well, they are two major drivers of running out of money. First, longevity. People live longer than they expect. For a 65-year-old, there’s a decent chance you’re gonna live to be 85. That’s especially true for women. There’s also long-term care costs of longevity, and then the cost of care later in life. 

As any caregiver knows, long-term care is a series of caregiving opportunities that you need to help older adults continue to live in a home, or in an assisted living facility type place. And long-term care can be extremely expensive. It’s one of the things people don’t like to talk about, we don’t like to talk about the fact that we may need help getting around our community, we need help getting around the house, or making meals. We don’t, as a society, like to talk about those things. 

Long-term care is really driving the fact many older adults age into poverty, again, especially true for women. So, one thing we like to do in NCOA is really focus on — how do we help you stretch your dollars? There are federal programs out there and state programs out there to help you really make your money work every month. These are programs that you can apply for that have certain qualifications about their age, or income qualifications, that really help people make those daily expenses possible.

Douglas: Let’s talk about some of those programs, some of the ways that seniors can stretch their dollars to survive 20 or 30 years without a direct income stream other than retirements and social security.

Hodges: I would use some of these programs as supplements, opportunities to help you make those dollars do more. For example, Medicare is not free. Many people think it’s free, it’s this free program at the end of their life where they have access. There are premiums, there are co-pays, there are drug costs to it, and each of those areas have programs to help low-income older adults pay for those things. 

One program to help pay for prescription drugs can save somebody an average of $5,000 a year. Now imagine you’re an older adult living in poverty, living at, you know, $12, $14, $15, $20,000 a year — $5,000 in your pocket is pretty significant and it gives you access to the drugs. What we don’t want is what happens in this society, is that people trade off their medication for their food, for their housing, they’re making these incredibly challenging tradeoffs. Having the opportunity to actually connect to these programs to help pay for food, pay for housing, pay for electricity, pay for your Medicare, are our opportunities that we really want to make sure older adults understand.

Douglas: What’s the scale? I mean, when you see TV advertising, you see happy senior citizens out traveling the world and going on vacations. I think we all know in the back of our heads that, that’s not reality for most people. But do you have any sense of the scale of how many people are just kind of eking by versus the ones who are living their best retirement?

Hodges: Our data shows tens of millions of older adults are barely making ends meet. You’re describing the idealized retirement. You get your gold watch after 40 years in a corporate job, then you move off to the Bahamas and you have a nice drink with an umbrella. That’s not the reality for many, many people in this country, because there are just so many different costs at play here. And because again, people are underestimating how long they’re going to live and definitely underestimate how much things cost. 

These programs I’m talking about, there are $30 billion, that’s billion with a B, left on the table every year. These are dollars that older adults do qualify for but aren’t actually applying and getting benefits because many of them don’t even apply.

Douglas: In trying to care for my mom, that was one of the issues that I kept running into as a caregiver, I didn’t have a clue how to even get started with that kind of stuff. Where does somebody go to learn about these programs and get signed up for or get registered to take advantage of them?

Hodges: I think you really identified the first major hurdle, just knowledge of these programs. So NCOA runs a website — It helps people understand what benefits they may qualify for. We’re a nonprofit, we’re not trying to sell you anything. We’re not trying to collect your information, we’re not going to even ask you for your email address. We’re just going to ask you some basic demographic information about yourself, what zip code you live in, how many people live in your household, whether you’re a veteran or not. Some of these programs are dependent on veteran status. 

This website gives you a sense of what coverage you may qualify for, then we connect you to where you actually apply for the benefits, because so many of these benefit programs are actually on state websites, are on third party websites. We want to connect you right to the programs themselves.

Douglas: What are the numbers we’re talking about? What does the average older adult qualify for?

Hodges: Average is a hard thing to do. We see many older adults who qualify for a Medicare savings plan or extra health. These are programs, they’ll pay for your Medicare. Extra Help is a program to help pay for your prescription drugs, we see numbers above $5,000 a year. Now it depends on what prescription drugs you’re on, it depends on your individual situation. But we’re not talking about pennies here, we’re talking about hundreds if not thousands of dollars. 

The bottom line for an older adult or a caregiver: take a look. If you don’t qualify, you don’t qualify, but there are many programs out there designed to help older adults. Some of them are not income dependent. There are programs to help in different parts of the country, too, for local transportation that’s age specific, but not income specific; programs like the National Parks Pass to let you get into the national parks. Many people don’t know these things exist, but they’re out there to save you money.

Douglas: What haven’t we talked about? 

Hodges: I think there are really two things to stop people from applying for these benefits. The first is knowledge, and so that’s one of our goals, get information out there. The second is this thought that there are people out there who need the benefits more, so I shouldn’t apply, because I’m doing okay. But these programs expand to meet the eligible individuals. If you don’t apply for the benefit that you would qualify for, somebody else doesn’t get more money. So don’t let that stop you, don’t prevent you from applying for these benefits. These benefits are there for people at all sorts of different income levels. And again, it takes about five minutes to see if you’re qualified for them. 

If you prefer a one-on-one approach, we run a national call center. And you can give them a call between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. eastern, seven days a week to talk to folks. That number is 1-800-794-6559. You can call them, and they’ll actually walk you through what benefits you might be eligible for or connect you to a local resource.