09/27/2012 04:15 pm ET Updated Nov 27, 2012

When Seniors Need Financial Assistance

When the last national census was taken in 2010, 48 percent of the population was classified as poor or low-income (earning less than 200 percent of the poverty level). Anyone who's ever tried to live on a limited income knows how difficult it can be to make ends meet when cost increases for essentials like healthcare, housing, food and energy outpace their earnings. This can be especially challenging for seniors living on a fixed income.

The good news is there are literally thousands of federal, state and private assistance programs designed to help seniors and others cover their basic needs. Your challenge might be finding ones for which you're eligible. Here are a few suggestions:

Search Engines. The nonprofit National Council on Aging offers BenefitsCheckUp, a free, confidential web-based service that helps seniors and their caregivers find financial assistance for healthcare (medical, dental, vision and medications), housing, food, utilities, in-home services and much more. After answering several questions, you're issued a personalized report describing programs and services for which you may be eligible, including links to their websites and applications. (AAPR provides a similar service called Benefits QuickLink.)

Low-cost healthcare. Several government-sponsored programs help pay for medical coverage, including:
  • Medicaid, a joint federal and state program that provides healthcare benefits to low-income and disabled people.
  • Medicare provides healthcare benefits (including hospitalization, doctor visits and prescriptions) to people 65 and over and those under 65 with certain disabilities or end-stage renal disease. Medicare Savings Programs help certain low-income and disabled individuals pay their Medicare premiums, deductibles, coinsurance and copayments.
  • PACE (Programs for All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly) provides comprehensive medical, social and rehabilitative services for seniors meeting eligibility standards for nursing home care.
  • For a good round-up of these programs, read Medicare's Get Help Paying Costs.

Prescription drug assistance programs. Most pharmaceutical companies offer patient assistance programs (PAPs) that provide uninsured and low-income people access to prescription drugs they couldn't otherwise afford. Ask your doctor, pharmacist or health clinic for details. Other good resources include: Medicare's alphabetical list of drugs available through PAPs, with links to detailed eligibility information; Partnership for Prescription Assistance; RxAssist; and NeedyMeds.

In addition, as a result of the Affordable Care Act, Medicare Part D participants who reach the so-called doughnut hole coverage gap now receive a 50 percent discount on brand-name prescription drugs and a 14 percent discount on generics. (These discounts will gradually increase until 2020 when the doughnut hole will disappear altogether.) To learn more about Healthcare Reform, read my previous blog, What Healthcare Reform Means to You.

Tax advantages. The IRS tax code includes several benefits that target seniors (and often, other lower-income taxpayers), including:
  • A higher standard deduction amount for most people who don't itemize deductions if they and/or their spouse are over 65 or blind.
  • An additional tax credit called the Credit for the Elderly or the Disabled for lower-income people who are over 65 or disabled and file a 1040 or 1040A tax form. (For full details and eligibility, see IRS Publication 524.
  • Certain home improvements made to accommodate medical conditions or disabilities with a doctor's recommendation may be deducted if you itemize deductions. Rules are complex, so read IRS Publication 502 and consult a tax advisor before claiming such deductions.
  • Free tax return preparation assistance and counseling from IRS-trained volunteers is available to those over age 60, as well as low-to-moderate income people and military families.
  • IRS Publication 554 provides comprehensive help for seniors to prepare their tax returns.
Other government programs. Many government-sponsored benefits, grants and financial aid programs exist to help seniors, low-income families and others pay their bills, including:
  • LIHEAP (Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program) provides grants to help pay utility bills.
  • SNAP (USDA's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) helps millions of lower-income Americans buy nutritious food each month.
  • Rental assistance for low-income families is available from several U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development programs as well as other state and local agencies (visit this site for details).
  • Go to this Government Benefits, Grants, and Financial Aid site for a comprehensive overview of additional government aid programs.

Also, ask whether your water, garbage, telephone and cable/satellite TV companies offer discounts for seniors, low-income families or the disabled. Rules vary, but you'll likely be asked to provide proof of age, income or disability status in order to qualify.

And of course, don't forget to ask about senior discounts whenever you shop, travel or buy insurance -- 10 percent here and there can really add up. Just be aware that senior rates at airlines, hotels and car rental agencies are not always the cheapest available, so check their websites or ask a phone representative for the lowest available rate before booking the senior rate.

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial adviser for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.