Aging brings to the forefront many issues: Health is No. 1;  finances are No. 2. 

For the aging, a health crisis is the one thing that can trump a financial calamity, but financial security is a huge concern for seniors. In my work with the aging, I am frequently asked to supply a bookkeeper for an elder’s home finances, and I make recommendations of financial advisors who specialize in working with seniors.

As we age, the truly blessed stay sharp even into their 90s and beyond; for most, our abilities to handle financial details will dim with age. When caring for an aging loved one, a discussion about long-term financial planning is mandatory. Do it sooner rather than later. Do it while the aging person can be actively engaged and make decisions.

Life expectancies are continuing to increase. For all of us, the challenge will be to make our financial resources outlive us.

Some elders are fortunate because they have strong financial resources and a steady stream of retirement income. At the other end of the spectrum are elders who depend on monthly Social Security checks and have few supplemental sources of income. In this latter situation, just keeping food on the table and the utility bills paid is a struggle.

For those in retirement, I’d like to make a few suggestions — things to investigate and consider. Each person’s situation is different so every recommendation will not be a fit. An elder’s finances are closely tied with their quality of life, so my recommendation: Investigate each option thoroughly, and always consult financial experts before making important financial decisions.

Tax relief for the family home

One asset that often survives all else is the family home. Without supplemental income, the family home becomes a burden: Real estate taxes, upkeep and repairs can become a financial drain. 

King County offers tax exemptions or deferrals for senior citizens with limited incomes or disabilities. For property-tax relief, view the King County Assessor’s website at www.kingcounty.gov/Assessor/TaxpayerAssistance/TaxRelief.aspx; or call (206) 263-2323.

If your elder is able to remain home, then a reverse mortgage might provide the needed financial relief. For seniors, reverse mortgages provide access to cash by way of a home’s equity value. This is done without selling the home and, more importantly, without making payments.

With access to a home’s equity, a senior could pay off debts and thereby eliminate monthly payments. A reverse mortgage can also provide monthly income, cash for home improvements and upkeep, and cash for expenses such as a caregiver or a household-chore worker.

As long as the homeowners continue to live in their home, pay the real estate taxes and retain homeowner’s insurance coverage, they will not need to repay the reverse mortgage. This type of mortgage creates a lien that must be repaid if the homeowners move out or sell the home; it also becomes due upon their deaths. 

Repayment is typically made through the sale of the home. After repayment, any cash remaining would become part of the homeowners’ estate.

Reverse mortgages are not for everyone. The downside: Over time, the dollar value of homeownership will be depleted. There is an on-line interactive tool for reviewing an aging person’s alternatives for using a home’s equity value: www.homeequityadvisor.org.

In the past, some marketers of reverse mortgages were abusive and took advantage of the aging; current regulations have made bad practices more difficult. Applicants are now required to participate in instructional courses prior to submitting an application for a reverse mortgage.

If the senior applicants are not fully cognizant or able to understand the commitment being undertaken, family members and/or friends need to be involved and must act as advocates on behalf of the aging persons. Seniors need to be fully informed. Seek out a trustworthy, independent advisor before deciding if this is the correct financial tool.

The National Council on Aging (NOCA) has an on-line reverse mortgage consumer guide: www.ncoa.org/news-ncoa-publications/publications/ncoa_reverse_mortgage_booklet_073109.pdf

SNAP

If seniors have limited income, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — formerly known as the Food Stamp program — provides low-income individuals and families with a federally funded benefit that can be used to buy the food needed to stay healthy. The NOCA website has details: www.ncoa.org/assets/files/pdf/center-for-benefits/SNAP-details.pdf.

Review retirement investments

Seniors with retirement income from investments should keep in mind that asset markets change over time. As a general rule, seniors should minimize exposure to risk. A senior’s investment allocation should be reviewed annually to assess risk exposure and to realign their investments with their retirement-income goal.

The main point is that people need to plan ahead and have a trusted advisor to help them make good decisions. None of us want to outlive our financial resources. 

MARLA BECK is the founder and president of Andelcare Inc., which provides in-home eldercare. Submit questions by calling (206) 838-1844 or via e-mail to marla@andelcare.com.