Living Only on Social Security Can Be Difficult. There Are Many Resources That Can Help Struggling Seniors

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  • Among older Americans, around 12% of men and 15% of women rely on their monthly Social Security check for nearly all of their income.
  • For many households, the benefit isn't enough to cover their bills.
  • Fortunately, there are thousands of public and private programs available to help eligible low-income older adults pay for health care, prescriptions, food and utilities.

Many Americans enter their retirement years with little or no savings. As a result, most or all of the money they receive comes from their Social Security check.

Around 12% of men and 15% of women rely on the benefit for 90% or more of their income, according to the most recent data from the Social Security Administration. That can be hard on a household: The average monthly payment in June 2021 was just $1,555.

Despite a larger than usual cost-of-living adjustment this year of nearly 6%, rapidly rising prices for housing and groceries have only increased fears among financially insecure retirees about meeting their expenses and the future.

"People are really starting to feel the impact of inflation, especially on everyday things," said Kristen Holt, president and chief executive of GreenPath Financial Wellness, a nonprofit debt counselor. "And that's putting a big strain on people living on a fixed income."

Living only on Social Security? Here are some tips on how to cope.

Apply for food benefits

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Many seniors aren't taking advantage of all the food assistance available to them, experts say.

A 2015 study found that less than half of eligible seniors participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

"For seniors, there tends to be a lot of misunderstanding about the program and a lot of stigma, and unfortunately that stands in the way of people seeking help," said Josh Protas, vice president of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

The extra money can go a long way for retirees on a fixed income: The maximum benefit a month for a household of one is $250. Grocery stores, online retailers and farmers markets accept the funds.

SNAP has rules around how much you can own in assets and earn in income to get the aid, and Social Security checks are factored in. Still, certain expenses, including your rent and child care costs, may be deducted, and experts say anyone who suspects they could qualify should apply.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, under which certain low-income people over the age of 60 are eligible for a monthly food package, containing fruits, vegetables, cheeses and more.

Meanwhile, retirees covered by a Medicaid health plan benefit may be eligible for free food through Mom's Meals. And some Medicare Advantage health plans offer meal benefits under the program for those recently discharged from a hospital or dealing with a chronic disease.

The meals are typically delivered every two to three weeks, and include dishes like Salisbury steak, pasta and meatballs, and sweet and sour chicken. People can let the program know of any allergies, and they accommodate for diets suited to vegetarians as well as to those with certain conditions like cancer or diabetes.

A spokesperson for Mom's Meals recommended seniors who think they might qualify for the free meals contact a Medicaid or Medicare representative.

Get help with health insurance and drug costs

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Pricey health insurance and prescription costs can take a big bite out of retirees' incomes.

Fortunately, some may be eligible for assistance with their monthly premiums under the Medicare Savings Program, said Caitlin Donovan, a spokeswoman for the National Patient Advocate Foundation, a nonprofit that helps patients access and pay for health care.

"If you qualify, your premiums, deductibles and copays will be covered, which would be an enormous financial relief for anyone," Donovan said.

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In addition, those enrolled in Medicare Part D, which covers prescriptions, should look to see if they qualify for Extra Help. That program can reduce the costs related to your drugs. The benefit can be worth more than $5,000 a year, Donovan said.

There are also a number of charitable organizations that assist seniors with their health-care costs. For example, at Copays.org you can apply for funds to put toward copays, premiums, deductibles and over-the-counter medications.

The National Patient Advocate Foundation has a financial resource directory in which you can search for local aid for everything from dental care to end-of-life services.

Other options ...

While you have to be extremely low income to qualify, some retirees will be eligible for the Supplemental Security Income program, a means-tested program for those over the age of 65 or with a disability.

In December 2021, more than 2.5 million people received both Social Security and the supplemental payment, which can be as high as $841 a month for an individual. You can apply on the Social Security Administration's website or by calling 1-800-325-0778.

For more help, the National Council on Aging has a "benefits check-up" website where you can learn about more than 2,000 resources available to struggling seniors by ZIP code. The council also has a guide called You Gave, Now Save, including information on the most generous benefits that help older people with expenses like their phone bill and property taxes.

Lastly, some older people may be able to take on at least part-time work to increase their income. More than a third of Americans over the age of 65 are currently doing so, according to Teresa Ghilarducci, director of The New School's Retirement Equity Lab.

The Department of Labor has a program that helps low-income, jobless seniors find work and get certain training, Ghilarducci pointed out. Another resource is the national nonprofit SER, and its network of community organizations that offer job training.

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