The Impact of COVID-19’s Social Isolation on Seniors

Published in RINews Today on November 16, 2020

As COVID-19 cases continued to surge across the nation, AARP Foundation in collaboration with the United Health Foundation (UHF), released a report last month taking a look as to how the COVID-19 pandemic impacts seniors who find themselves socially isolated.  According to the recently released report, “The Pandemic Effect A Social Isolation Report,” two-thirds of adult respondents say they are experiencing social isolation and high levels of anxiety since the beginning of the pandemic.  

The 60-page report, released on Oct. 6, noted that many seniors who are affected have not turned to anyone for assistance, because many find themselves socially isolation, because of lacking reliable and meaningful social support networks.  Previous research studies have found the health risks of being social isolation can be more harmful than being obese, and long-term isolation is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. 

Social Isolation and Seniors

The study, funded by AARP Foundation with the support of a grant from United Health Foundation, was designed to explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on adults of all ages, to understand levels of social isolation during the pandemic, and to assess knowledge of how social isolation can impact a person’s health.  The online survey contacted 2,010 U.S. adults age 18 and older, from Aug. 21-25. 

The researchers say that key signs to identify if someone is at risk for social isolation are access to food, healthcare, transportation and other vital resources. But they say that “it’s connections, companionship, and a sense of belonging that we need as humans.”

The AARP Foundation’s report found that for adults 50 and older who have experienced social isolation during the COVID-19 crisis, more than seven in 10 adults agree that this made it more difficult to connect with friends. Half of the respondents also said that they are feeling less motivated, more than four in 10 (41 percent) report feeling more anxious than usual and more than a third (37 percent) have experienced depression. 

The researchers also found that a third of women age 50 and over reported going 1 to 3 months without interacting with people outside of their household or workplace, and adults with low and middle incomes who report experiencing social isolation also say they felt more depressed than adults with higher incomes. Furthermore, only 11 percent of adults regardless of age turned to a medical professional when feeling down or sad, and almost a third reported that they did not look to anyone for support.

Getting Help to Strengthen Social Connections

Commander Scott Kelly, renowned astronaut who spent 340 days isolated in space, has teamed up with AARP Foundation and the UHF to spread the word about the seriousness of social isolation and provide tips on how to successfully emerge from it.  

“Living on the International Space Station for nearly a year with literally no way to leave wasn’t easy, so I took precautions for my mental and physical health seriously,” said Commander Kelly in a statement announcing the release of the report. “I’m advocating for individuals, particularly vulnerable older adults, to use available tools like Connect2Affect.org to strengthen their social connections,” he said.

Getting the Help You Need

Working closely with the UHF to help seniors impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the AARP Foundation recently expanded its website, (Connect2Affect.org) which was originally launched in 2016. The site offers a wealth of resources for socially isolated seniors to strengthen their social bonds.

This website provides help to individuals to assess their risk for social isolation, and to find support services in their local area. The website includes a Social Isolation Risk Assessment, a questionnaire to help individuals determine how connected they are to others and which resources would benefit them most.

Individuals can also tap into Chatbot, a component of the website, designed to provide friendly conversation with the goal of helping rebuild social connections. Chatbot conversations are secure, private and accessible 24/7.

“Social isolation is taking a toll on individuals and communities nationwide, and it’s especially pernicious for those who are 50 or older. This survey shows that older adults who have lower incomes and who are women are at greatest risk,” said Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of AARP Foundation. “The tools and resources at Connect2Affect.org are designed to help older adults build and maintain the social connections they need to thrive,” she said.

Adds, Dr. Rhonda Randall, executive vice president and a chief medical officer at UnitedHealthcare added, “Many people don’t know that social isolation can have lasting effects on not only mental health — but also physical health. We’re focused on finding practical solutions to the lack of connections, companionship and the sense of belonging that we all need as humans.” 

For a copy of “The Pandemic Effect: A Social Isolation Report,” go to https://connect2affect.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/The-Pandemic-Effect-A-Social-Isolation-Report-AARP-Foundation.pdf.

Social Security ’21 Cola Increase Anemic

Published in RINewsToday.com on on October 19, 2020

With the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) announcement of next year’s Social Security and Supplemental Security Income’s (SSI) meager cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), over 70 million beneficiaries will only see an increase of 1.3 percent in their monthly checks in 2021.  Last year’s COLA increase was 2.8 percent, the largest in seven years.

According to SSA, the 1.3 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) will begin with benefits payable to more than 64 million Social Security beneficiaries in January 2021. Increased payments to more than 8 million Supplemental Security Income (SSI) beneficiaries start on December 31, 2020. 

SSA ties the annual COLA to the increase in the Consumer Price Index as determined by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

The maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax (taxable maximum) will increase to $142,800 from $137,700, says SSA.

The earnings limit for workers who are younger than “full” retirement age will increase to $18,960. (SSA deducts $1 from benefits for each $2 earned over $18,960.)

The earnings limit for people reaching their “full” retirement age in 2021 will increase to $50,520. (SSA deducts $1 from benefits for each $3 earned over $50,520 until the month the worker turns “full” retirement age.)

There is no limit on earnings for workers who are “full” retirement age or older for the entire year. 

Next Year’s COLA Increase Not Enough 

Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) calls the increase as inadequate especially for COVID-Ravaged Seniors and noted that it’s the lowest since 2017.  

“The timing could not be worse. The COVID pandemic has devastated many older Americans both physically and financially.  Seniors living on fixed incomes need a lifeboat; this COLA increase is more like an underinflated inner tube,” says Richtman.

The average Social Security beneficiary will see a paltry $20 month more in benefits in 2021, calculates Richtman. “This COLA is barely enough for one prescription co-pay or half a bag of groceries. Worse yet, seniors could lose almost half of their COLA increase to a rise in the Medicare Part B premium for 2021, the exact amount of which has not yet been announced,” he warns.  

“The current COLA formula – the CPI-W – is woefully inadequate for calculating the true impact of inflation on seniors’ pocketbooks. It especially under-represents the rising costs that retirees pay for expenses like health care, prescription drugs, food, and housing. We support the adoption of the CPI-E (Consumer Price Index for the Elderly), which properly weights the goods and services that seniors spend their money on,” says Richtman. 

Examining the Growth of SSA COLAs 

Social Security checks in 2020 are almost 20 percent lower than they otherwise would be, due to the long-term impact of extremely low annual inflation adjustments, according to a newly released analysis by The Senior Citizens League (TSCL).  The analysis comes as SSA announced that the 2021 COLA will be just 1.3 percent, making it one of the lowest ever paid. 

“People who have been receiving benefits for 12 years or longer have experienced an unprecedented series of extremely low cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs),” says TSCL’s Mary Johnson, a Social Security policy analyst for the Alexandria, Virginia nonpartisan senior advocacy group. “What’s more those inflation adjustments do not account for rapidly rising Medicare Part B premiums that are increasing several times faster than the COLA,” she says, noting that this causing those with the lower Social Security benefits to see little growth in their net Social Security income after deduction of the Part B premium.  

Johnson’s COLA analysis, released on Oct. 13, compared the growth of retiree benefits from 2009-through 2020 to determine how much more income retirees would receive if COLAs had grown by a more typical rate of 3 percent. TSCL’s analysis found that an “average” retiree benefit of $1,075 per month in 2009 has grown to $1,249 in 2020, but, if COLAs had just averaged 3 percent, that benefit would be $247 per month higher today (19.8 percent higher), and those individuals would have received $18,227.40 more in Social Security income over the 2 010 to 2020 period. 

During that period COLAs have averaged just 1.4 percent. In 2010, 2011, and 2016 there was no COLA payable at all and, in 2017, the COLA was 0.03 percent. “But COLAs have never remained so low, for such an extended period of time, in history of Social Security,” says Johnson, who has studied COLAs for more than 25 years.  Over the 20-year period covering 1990 to 2009, COLAs routinely averaged 3 percent annually, and were even higher before that period. 

According to Johnson, the suppressed growth in Social Security benefits not only creates ongoing benefit adequacy issues, but also Medicare budgetary programs when the COLA is not sufficient to cover rising Part B premiums for large number of beneficiaries. When the dollar amount of the annual Medicare Part B premium increase is greater than the dollar amount of an individual’s annual COLA, the Social Security benefits of about 70 percent of Medicare beneficiaries are protected by the hold-harmless provision in the Social Security Act.  The Medicare Part B premium of those individuals is reduced to prevent their net Social Security benefits from being lower than the year before, she says. 

However, Johnson notes that the people who are not covered by hold harmless include higher income beneficiaries, beneficiaries who have not started Social Security yet and who pay for Medicare by check and about 19 percent of beneficiaries whose incomes are so low that their state Medicaid programs pay their Medicare Part B premiums on their behalf. 

Johnson says, “that a provision of a recently enacted government spending bill restricts Part B premium increases in 2021. The bill caps the Part B premium increase for next year at the 2020 amount plus 25 percent of the differences between the 2020 amount and a preliminary amount for 2021.”

Don’t look for the “potential Part B spike” to go away, warns Johnson. “Unless Congress acts to boost Social Security benefits and finds a better way to adjust benefits for growing Medicare costs, this problem will continue occur with greater frequency in the future,” she says.

Fixing SSA’s COLA Problem Once and For All

During the COVID-19 pandemic seniors are relying more on their Social Security check but continue to face cost increases each year beyond the extra income provided by the COLA, says Social Security Subcommittee Chairman John B. Larson (D-Connecticut) in a statement following SSA’s announcement of its tiny 2021 COLA increase. “It’s time to fix that by enacting the Social Security 2100 Act.,” says the Connecticut Congressman calling for passage of his legislative proposal that would strengthen SSA benefits by basing the COLA on what seniors actually spend on items such as medical expenses, food, and housing. Under this new CPI-E index, a beneficiary would experience benefits that are 6 percent higher by the time they reach age 90. 

Meanwhile, Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) sponsored and Larson, a co-sponsor, have proposed emergency legislation to increase next year’s COLA up to 3 percent. “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, seniors are facing additional financial burdens in order to stay safe,” said DeFazio.  “This absolutely anemic COLA won’t even come close to helping them afford even their everyday expenses, let alone those exacerbated by COVID-19. Raising the COLA to 3 percent 2021 will provide seniors with an immediate, crucial lifeline during the ongoing coronavirus crisis,” says the Oregon Congressman. DeFazio’s legislative proposal, the Social Security Expansion Act, would also provide a permanent fix to the COLA formula, like Larson using a CPI-E index to factor in seniors’ actual, everyday expenses.

LCAO Calls for Fourth Stimulus Bill to Protect the Health and Well-Being of Seniors

Published in the Wooonsocket Call on April 19, 2020

As part of the Economic Impact Payment provision in the recently enacted $ 2.2 trillion stimulus bill, at press time about 80 million Americans have already received their $ 1,200 stimulus check ($2,400 for joint filers) through direct deposit. But for those 70 million Americans waiting for this payment by paper check, this Congressional handout may not be delivered to their mail box by early May, predict a Democratic Senator.

While the U.S. Treasury Department denies that embossing President Donald Trump’s signature on the “memo” section of the check will delay the delivery of paper checks, Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden, (D-Ore.) disagrees.

A Break in Protocol

In an April 15 statement, Wyden stated: “Donald Trump is further delaying cash payments to millions of Americans struggling to pay the rent and put food on the table to feed his ego. Only this president would try to make a pandemic and economic catastrophe all about him.”

According to an article published in the Washington Post on April 14, “It will be the first time a president’s name appears on an IRS disbursement, whether a routine refund or one of the handful of checks the government has issued to taxpayers in recent decades either to stimulate a down economy or share the dividends of a strong one.”

The Washington Post article, penned by Reporter Lisa Rein, reported that Trump had initially approached Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who oversees the Internal Revenue Service, to be allowed to sign the checks. “But the president is not an authorized signer for legal disbursements by the U.S. Treasury. It is standard practice for a civil servant to sign checks issued by the Treasury Department to ensure that government payments are nonpartisan,” says the article.

Political insiders say that we can expect to see a fourth stimulus package hammered out between the Democratic-controlled House, the GOP-led Senate and Trump, to pump billions to jumpstart the nation’s sputtering economy. A second round of cash payments may well be part of this economic stimulus package, they say.

“We could very well do a second round,” said President Donald Trump at a White House news conference held over a week ago. “It is absolutely under serious consideration,” he said.

Last week’s commentary publicized Max Richtman, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, call to Congress to protect seniors in a fourth stimulus package (go to https://herbweiss.blog/2020/04/12/congress-must-protect-seniors-in-phase-four-stimulus-package/).

The continuing political battle over crafting the fourth stimulus bill has been put on hold for now with Democratic and WRepublican congressional leaders extending recess. After conferring with public health experts, the House and Senate will not come back into session until, Monday, May 4th.

Calling on Congress to Protect Seniors During the COVID-19 Pandemic

In an April 8 letter, the Washington, DC-based Leadership Council on Aging Organizations (LCAO), representing 69 national nonprofit organizations, urged Congressional lawmakers to ensure that a fourth stimulus package will protect the health and wellbeing of seniors and their families. LCAO’s 19-page communication provides over 50 recommendations (in the areas of housing services, income security and health and community resources) that are key to helping and providing the needed support to assist seniors cope with the raging COVID-19 pandemic.

Specially, LCAO calls on Congress to put funding for affordable housing in a fourth stimulus bill, by funding $ 1.4 billion for federally assisted housing supports to make up for vacancies along with decreased rents from HUD-and USDA-assisted older adult residents, and for emergency housing assistance. Investing $1 billion for new Section 202 Homes would result in short-and long-term jobs as well as 3,800 affordable homes becoming available with service coordinators, says LCAO. Congress was also requested to allocate $450 million in emergency assistance for HUD-assisted senior housing communities, too.

LCAO opposes any attempts to weaken the nation’s Social Security and Medicare programs. The aging group strongly resists any efforts to include a provision in the stimulus bill that would eliminate the payroll contributions to these programs and pushes for the expansion of Social Security and Supplemental (SSI) benefits to enhance the income security of America’s retirees.

Over 10 million workers and retirees have earned benefits under multiemployer pension plans, says LCAO, urging Congress in their letter to allocate sufficient funds to protect the “hard-earned benefits” of these retirees.

With a growing number of the nation’s seniors relying on the support of caregivers, LCAO calls for support of older adult caregivers and children through the expansion of the refundable tax credit for “other dependents.”

Within the next five years, 25 percent of the workforce will be age 55 and over, says LCAO, noting that it becomes crucial to provide adequate funding to the Senior Community Service Employee Program for workforce training.

It’s important to protect seniors from confusing and unfair billing hospitals and payment scams. This can be accomplished by establishing standards for billing that will help seniors manage the aftermath of health care costs due to the pandemic.

Each year, Medicare loses $60 billion to fraud and abuse. LCAO also requests $20 million for the Senior Medicare Patrol to educate Medicare beneficiaries on combating fraud and abuse scams.

LCAO’s letter also asked Congress for adequate funding of mass testing for COVID-19, data collection and accelerate Medicare enrollment to provide seniors and people with disabilities with access to needed medical treatment, two populations with the highest risk for being afflicted by the devastating virus. Congress must also ensure access and affordability to prescription drugs, says the Washington, DC-based aging advocacy group.

LCAO urged Congress to give states sufficient Medicaid funding to keep hundreds of thousands of Medicaid recipients from losing health coverage, which would increase the risk of these individuals spreading the COVID-19 virus.

The need to social distancing may force day care centers to close. LCAO says that a fourth stimulus bill package might add language within the Medicare and Medicaid Home and Community Based Service funding to authorize states to apply retainer payments to adult day care centers for the purpose of providing services to seniors outside the physical center.

LCAO also made a recommendation to prevent the unnecessary transfers of seniors to hospitals and nursing homes and support those recovering from COVID-19 by increasing beneficiary access to home health care by eliminating Medicare’s requirement that they be home bound to quality for this benefit.

LCAO’s letter supported the expanded access to hospice care by allowing physician assistants to certify need and to create a federal fund to identify and set up alternative care sites to nursing homes that meet the same minimum federal standards of care.

LCAO pushed for an additional $50 million to fund the Medicare State Health Insurance Program, a program providing unbiased, free and personalized information to assist seniors to chooses Medicare products, to help seniors understand their specific health care coverage needs under this COVID emergency.

The fourth stimulus bill, says LCAO, must also include funding to ensure providers in health care facilities and at community-based programs, be given personal protective equipment. These providers should be provided free child care and sick leaved during this crisis, too.

Considered “a frontline resource in the battling the pandemic,” LCAO calls for the adequate funding to Geriatric Workforce Enhancement Program, administered by the Health Resources Administration.

LCAO, noting the importance of federal programs that assist seniors to stay at home (including the Older Americans Act that directly serve seniors and caregivers, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the largest federal nutrition program), asks Congress to increase funding, benefits and streamline the application process to these programs to address healthcare and food needs during this pandemic.

With the COVID-19 virus spreading throughout the nation’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities, LCAO calls for more funding to the nation’s long-term care ombudsman program for remote online training and education of nursing facility staff and volunteers, and to the National Ombudsman Resource Center for training materials.

With elder abuse and neglect cases in the community reaching 63,000 in 2018 and an expected surge in incidences due to the pandemic, LCAO calls for funding of $ 120 million for the nation’s state and local Adult Protective Services programs in the next stimulus bill. Also, allocating $4.1 billion for the Social Service Block Grant Program can provide critical services to vulnerable seniors through adult protective services, adult day care and in-home support services, congregate and home delivered meals, case management programs.

Finally, in a fourth economic response package, LCAO calls on lawmakers to include $15 million for the Retired Senior Volunteer Program and $10 million for the Senior Companion program to provide volunteer opportunities for seniors in their communities during the pandemic crisis. Congress might also consider “easing or suspending the current age requirements for participation,” to allow younger seniors to participate.

Remember Your Older Constituents

With the Trump Administration and GOP lawmakers pushing to put billions of dollars into the fourth stimulus bill to support the nation’s large corporations and small businesses, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important for Congress to not forget the needs of the nation’s seniors. If you run into your Congressman or Senator, make sure you urge them to seriously consider the needs of their older constituents.

To get a copy of LCAO’s letter to Congress, go to https://www.lcao.org/files/2020/04/LCAO-April-2020-Letter-for-COVID-19-Package-4-FINAL.docx.pdf .