Helping an indigent parent navigate “the system”

Dear Liz: Our mother just turned 64, and our father is divorcing her. She hasn’t worked in years because of significant physical and mental health issues. My sister and I have been trying to figure out how she’s going to survive on $750 a month, which is the equivalent of half his Social Security. She has always had serious issues with money management, which is why there are no retirement savings or a house. We are now about to embark on the maze of social service benefits that an older woman below the poverty line can receive, partly so we can decide whether she’s better off staying put where she is in Arkansas, moving to my sister’s in Texas, moving to be near me in Maryland, or moving to her childhood home of Chicago, where most of her friends are. For a lot of complicated reasons (mostly related to the mental health issues), we are trying to avoid having her live with either of us full time, and she expresses no desire to do so. So we have to figure out the ins and outs of Medicaid, food stamps, subsidized senior housing and anything else in four different states and then try to explain it to her. If you have any hints about helping an indigent and somewhat incapacitated mother access services, we would love to hear them. We feel a little overwhelmed at the moment and aren’t even sure whom to call in each place.

Answer: It’s understandable that you feel overwhelmed. You have a huge task in front of you.

You can start with the Eldercare Locator, a free service offered by the U.S. Administration on Aging that can connect you to services for older adults and their families. You’ll find it at, or you can call (800) 677-1116.

Another resource you might want to consider is a geriatric care manager. These are professionals who help family members care for elderly relatives. The care manager can evaluate your mom, review her options and make recommendations. Their services aren’t cheap, but they can be especially helpful in managing a long-distance situation. You can find referrals at the National Assn. of Geriatric Care Managers’ site, And speaking of distance: It might be easier to help your mom if she lives closer to one of you, or to a trustworthy friend who can check in on her and let you know how things are going.

You also should check with an Arkansas family law attorney, since your mother may be eligible for some kind of spousal support and possibly a property division that could help her financially.

Finally, if your father dies before your mother, she still will be eligible for survivor benefits that could bump her Social Security check up to 100% of what your father was receiving. Many people don’t realize that ex-spouses can qualify for survivors’ benefits as long as the marriage lasted 10 years and the person applying for benefits didn’t remarry until after age 60.

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  1. Dear Liz,

    I think your column is excellent! Regarding the question about help to an elderly parent, many employers offer financial, legal, and elder care resource and referral services to employees and their family members as part of the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). The EAP, which is paid for by the employer, provides confidential assistance for a wide range of personal problems. It’s a wonderful resource that is too often under-utilized due to lack of awareness by employees. Please consider mentioning EAP as a resource in future columns.

  2. Remember to always research your options thoroughly. The advice you receive from “professionals” can sometimes be wrong or motivated by personal gain. In government organizations, be mindful of what their job responsibility is and whether the advice you receive is related to that responsibility. Some will offer you advice in non-related areas where they are completely unqualified to give this advice or just plain wrong. I learned this the hard way and made some poor choices based on the advice. This is not to scare you, but to take the time to research your options. It can be overwhelming, but you have to take what people tell you, especially when it comes to government benefits, with a grain of salt.

  3. I agree, Eldercare Locator is a pretty good service. Whatever you end up going with make sure that you read lots of reviews and if possible speak with the residents.