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Giving the Gift of Support during the Holidays

The holiday season is upon us. While the COVID-19 emergency has been challenging and required all of us to make drastic adjustments to our daily routines, I am grateful and proud that the Department of Aging and Area Agencies on Aging (AAA) responded quickly to adapt and create new ways to serve the needs of our vulnerable populations to help keep them, our staff and volunteers safe. This has also included efforts to help maintain the physical and mental well-being of older adults as a top priority for us.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, from May to October of 2020, there was a 15% increase in the number of older adults who stated that their mental health has been negatively affected by COVID-19, with 25% of older adults stating that they feel anxiety or depression due to the pandemic. Given these facts, maintaining good mental health for Pennsylvania seniors is even more crucial, especially during this holiday season. This time of year may typically be stressful for some people, and unfortunately COVID may make it even more so. This is particularly true because the norms and traditions of the holidays are unsafe at this time. While being away from friends and loved ones is not easy, it is essential in order to keep each other healthy and safe.

The absence of in-person connections and perhaps the loss of someone close can result in an older adult becoming lonely, depressed and even socially isolated. Many people, including seniors, may be dealing with a kind of grief that we may not recognize or understand. We must reach out to the older adults in our lives and let them know they are not alone. It’s important to have an honest, open dialogue about feelings and when someone is not ok.

There are many resources available for older adults who may be dealing with stress, anxiety, depression or social isolation. The Department of Human Services offers Persevere PA, a mental health support and referral helpline available 24/7. It is a free resource staffed by skilled and compassionate caseworkers available to counsel Pennsylvanians struggling with anxiety and other challenging emotions. The helpline caseworkers can refer callers to community-based resources that can further help to meet individual needs. The number is 1-855-284-2494. For TTY, dial 724-631-5600.

Grandparents and other older adults raising young children who are facing difficulty during this time of year can seek assistance through www.kinconnector.org. This resource is designed to assist kinship care families in connecting to services and supports that can help both children and their caregivers. The website provides resources in local communities on trainings and services available for kinship families, and information about support groups and networks of other kinship care families and family care professionals. KinConnector also runs a helpline and provides support in English and Spanish. The number is 1-866-KIN-2111 (1-866-546-2111).

The holidays may also be tough for older adults with a substance use disorder or in recovery. Stress caused by schedule changes, loss of a job, lack of in-person support, strained or non-existent relationships with family members or other triggers may cause them to overdose or relapse. The Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP) maintains a toll-free helpline that connects callers looking for treatment options for themselves or a loved one to resources in their community. The Get Help Now helpline is available 24/7 – including holidays – at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

The Pennsylvania Council on Aging (PCoA) recently released an interactive guide with information and resources to help older adults cultivate a healthy mind, body and spirit amidst the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. The guide, titled “SOLO: Strengthening Older Lives Online,” was produced by PCoA’s Risk Reduction Committee, which is made up of older adults and was formed in response to the Council’s State of Older Adults Report released in May 2020. The committee is an extension of the Social Isolation Task Force formed in 2019 to help mitigate social isolation among seniors. You can read more about SOLO in this newsletter.

As 2020 comes to an end, I would like to thank the Department of Aging staff, the AAA network, and our community partners and stakeholders for all that they have done this year. We have faced many challenges, but we are getting through them together while continuing to meet the needs of older Pennsylvanians. On behalf of the Department of Aging, have a happy and safe holiday season. We look forward to continuing our great work in the new year.

 
Sincerely,
      

 
Robert Torres
Secretary of Aging

Department of Health Announces New COVID-19 Mitigation Efforts

The Department of Health (DOH) has announced new mitigation efforts as Pennsylvania experiences a resurgence of COVID-19 cases with significantly higher daily case counts than in the spring and hospitalizations on the rise.

DOH strengthened orders to wearing masks with these inclusions:

  • Masks are required to be worn indoors and outdoors if you are away from your home.
  • When outdoors, a mask must be worn if you are not able to remain physically distant (at least 6 feet away) from someone not in your household the entire time you are outdoors.
  • When indoors, masks will now be required even if you are physically distant from members not in your household. This means that even if you can be 6 feet apart, you will need to wear a mask while inside if with people other than members of your household. 
  • This order applies to every indoor facility, including homes, retail establishments, gyms, doctors’ offices, public transportation, and anywhere food is prepared, packaged or served.
The department also issued a memorandum to acute care hospitals outlining expectations to care for Pennsylvanians during the pandemic. Under the expectations, hospitals should work through established health care coalitions and other partnerships to prepare for how they will support one other in case a hospital becomes overwhelmed. Hospitals should also move up elective procedures necessary to protect a person’s health and prepare to suspend them if Pennsylvania’s health care system becomes strained.

DOH also issued an order requiring anyone who visits Pennsylvania from another state to have a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours prior to entering the commonwealth. If the visitors cannot get a test or choose not to, they must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.

The order does not apply to people who commute to and from another state for work or medical treatment.
Wolf Administration Calls for Continued Support of PA National Guard Assistance in Long-Term Care Facilities

Secretary Torres recently joined other cabinet members to urge the federal government to reauthorize Title 32. This would allow the Pennsylvania National Guard to continue carrying out missions that assist long-term care facilities impacted by COVID-19.

Without federal authorization, Pennsylvania would have to consider placing the Pennsylvania National Guard on State Active Duty, which the state would be financially responsible for. Also, federal authorization provides more protection for members of the Pennsylvania National Guard for healthcare and benefits.

Read more here

Medicare Open Enrollment Period Deadline is December 7, Free Counseling Available

Medicare beneficiaries have until Monday, December 7 to sign up for Medicare Prescription Drug coverage and health plans to complement Medicare, and current Medicare beneficiaries can review and join, switch, or drop Medicare Advantage or Prescription Drug Coverage so that it better meets their needs.
 
PDA is offering free, objective health benefits counseling through the APPRISE Program. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, counseling sessions will be conducted over the phone or virtually.

Beneficiaries can call the APPRISE Helpline at 1-800-783-7067 or their local Area Agency on Aging.

Older adults under age 65 who do not qualify for Medicare currently, but who still need health care coverage can sign up through Pennie, the Pennsylvania Insurance Health Exchange. Learn more by visiting Pennie’s website.

Deadline Approaching to Apply for Property Tax/Rent Rebate Program
 
Older adults have until December 31 to apply for the state’s Property Tax/Rent Rebate Program.

The program provides rebates up to $650 on rent or property tax paid in 2019 by Pennsylvanians 65 or older, widows and widowers 50 or older, and people with disabilities.

The income limit is $35,000 a year for homeowners and $15,000 annually for renters. Half of Social Security income and all Social Security cost-of-living increases are excluded.

Claimants must reapply for rebates every year because they are based on annual income and property taxes or rent paid each year. Spouses, personal representatives or estates may file rebate claims on behalf of deceased claimants who lived at least one day in 2019 and meet all other eligibility criteria.

Applications and more information can be found on the Department of Revenue’s website.

Home Heating Assistance Program Enrollment Underway
 
Enrollment is now underway for the 2020-2021 Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The program provides low-income families and seniors with cash grants to help them pay their heating bills. Households in immediate danger of being without heat can also qualify for crisis grants. These grants do not have to be repaid.


For more information about LIHEAP, including how to qualify and sign up, visit the Department of Human Services’ website.

PUC Urges Vigilance Against Utility-Related Scams
 
With the arrival of colder weather combined with the financial pressures on older adults, families and businesses due to COVID-19, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) is encouraging consumers to understand how con artists operate and to stay alert for possible utility-related scams.
 
While individual scam calls or emails may differ slightly, most operate using a similar framework:   

  • Official-Sounding Calls – Scam artists claim to be representatives from respected agencies, like your utility or a government entity.
  • Demands for Immediate Response – Scammers pressure consumers into acting quickly, with threats of service interruptions or claims of large savings.
  • Unusual Payment Requests – Many financial scammers request payment using prepaid debit cards, gift cards or wire transfers, which are generally untraceable.
  • Disclosure of Personal Information – Offers of “refunds” or “large savings” may be used to trick consumers into disclosing utility account numbers and other personal information, which could be used for future fraud.   
Customers should call their utilities if they suspect fraudulent activity or want to check on the status of their accounts because they are unsure about the authenticity of a call or the identity of a service worker.
 
If anyone feels they have been a victim of a utility-related scam, they should call the PUC’s Bureau of Consumer Services at 1-800-692-7380.
 
The PUC continues to caution Pennsylvanians about robocalls from unidentifiable sources that make vague and potentially misleading statements about customer discounts, refunds, rebates and bonuses if the customers act immediately. The calls often appear as a local telephone number on recipients’ caller ID, which is often fake or “spoofed,” or the calls fail to display any number at all.
 
When it comes to discussing energy supply services, the PUC stresses telemarketers must do the following:
  • Immediately Identify Themselves – Callers must tell you who they are at the beginning of the call.
  • Explain the Call – They must clearly explain why they are calling.
  • No False Claims – They cannot claim to represent the PUC, another utility or other organization.

The consumer should end the call immediately if the agent fails to do this immediately. Customers should call the Bureau of Consumer Services if they face an aggressive sales call or suspect a scam.

Protecting Older Adults from Holiday Financial Scams
 
The Pennsylvania Department of Banking and Securities (DoBS) and the Pennsylvania State Police are joining forces this holiday season to protect older adults from becoming victims of holiday financial scams.

Three common scams to look out for this year include:

  • Phishing E-mail Scams. Con artists create emails that look like they are from actual retailers but contain harmful links to obtain usernames, passwords and sensitive financial information.
  • Skimming and E-skimming Device Scams. Skimming devices capture the information from the black magnetic strip on debit or credit cards at the point-of-sale device or ATM machine.
  • Gift Card Fraud. Scammers use a computer program to test millions of random combinations of numbers and pins at retailer websites. Once they find a combination that works, they use all the funds available to make purchases, or sell the information on the dark web. When the real owner of the card tries to use it to make the legitimate purchase, they find there are no funds available on the card.
Six strategies that can help older Pennsylvanians protect themselves include:
  1. Monitor your accounts. Frequently check your financial accounts for any debits or withdrawals you do not recognize.
  2. Never follow links in unsolicited emails. Check that any emails you receive are from a correct email address.
  3. Type the website directly into your browser. Pay attention to your spelling and double check that it is a U.S. domain – like dot-com, rather than an international domain – before entering any sensitive information.
  4. Be wary of any transaction involving checks. Never send anything via Western Union or prepaid cards to someone previously unknown to you. When possible, use a credit card, single-use debit card, or prepaid reloadable card for online purchases.
  5. When in doubt, hang up. Never provide credit card info as part of an unsolicited phone call and think twice if you’re being pressured to donate “right now.”
  6. Be skeptical. If it sounds too good to be true, it likely is.
By knowing the red flags, older adults can ask themselves the following simple questions to help detect and prevent themselves from becoming a victim of a scam:
  • Has someone contacted you unexpectedly? If you weren’t expecting a phone call or didn’t initiate the contact, it should be a red flag.
  • Have they promised you something? If they’re offering you something that seems too good to be true, it’s a red flag.
  • Have they asked you to do something? Are they asking you for money or account information? If you didn’t initiate the conversation, do not provide it.

Anyone can contact the DoBS at 1-800-PA-BANKS or 1-800-722-2657 to ask questions or file complaints about financial transactions, companies, or products.  

Online Grocery Purchases Available for SNAP Recipients

The Department of Human Services (DHS) is reminding older adults who are Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients that they can purchase groceries online through participating stores approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
 
Launched five months ago, the online grocery purchase program has been convenient for Pennsylvanian SNAP recipients who have been concerned about going to the store during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Only eligible food items normally paid for by SNAP may be purchased from participating retailers online with SNAP benefits. Delivery fees, driver tips, and other associated charges may not be paid for with SNAP benefits.

More information about this program is available on the DHS’ website.

Older adults, and those raising children, who may need help with purchasing or affording food may be eligible for EBT and other public assistance programs. They can apply by visiting the COMPASS website.

PA Council on Aging Releases Interactive Health & Wellness Guide for Older Adults

The Pennsylvania Council on Aging (PCoA) has released an interactive guide with information and resources to help older adults cultivate a healthy mind, body and spirit amidst the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The guide, titled “SOLO: Strengthening Older Lives Online,” was produced by PCoA’s Risk Reduction Committee, which is made up of older adults and was formed in response to the council’s State of Older Adults Report in May. The committee is an extension of the Social Isolation Task Force, formed in 2019 to help mitigate social isolation among seniors.

The SOLO guide is designed to go beyond some of the physical safety reminders during the COVID-19 pandemic. Using bold, color graphics, the guide incorporates ways for aging adults to combat some of the pervasive stressors exacerbated by the pandemic while helping them live their best lives.

Tools available in the guide include:

  • Activities & videos to help stay mentally, spiritually, and physically fit
  • Resources available to assist with those three areas
  • Short questionnaires to build active health plans
Click here for English version
Click here for Spanish version

DMVA Connects Veterans to Resources, Temporary Assistance

The Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMVA) has launched a statewide outreach initiative designed to better serve the commonwealth’s nearly 800,000 veterans, no matter where they reside.   

PA VETConnect helps veterans and families with an array of issues, including homelessness, mental health, suicide, employment, financial challenges, legal, family crisis, and much more. 

The DMVA is also assisting veterans and their beneficiaries who are facing unexpected financial need for necessities such as food, shelter, clothing and fuel through its Veterans Temporary Assistance (VTA) program.

Eligible veterans or their beneficiaries can qualify for an amount not to exceed $1,600 in a
12-month period. Eligibility requirements include: a person who served in the Armed Forces of the United States (discharged under honorable conditions), died in service or was killed in action, or suffered a service-connected disability. 

Veterans can apply by contacting the County Veterans Affairs Director in the county where they live.

Visit the DMVA’s website for more about PA VETConnect and the VTA.

Pennsylvania Moves Forward to Update 911 System

At-risk communities such as the deaf and hard of hearing will benefit from an upgrade to Pennsylvania’s 911 system. Modernizations provided by Pennsylvania’s Next Generation 911 system include:

  • Enhancing the speed and accuracy of 911 call delivery;
  • Facilitating the availability of text-to-911 statewide; and
  • Adapting the 911 system to how people communicate today – largely through mobile and digital devices.

The monthly $1.65 911 surcharge that Pennsylvanians pay on communication services capable of contacting 911 will fund the update.

PDA hosts annual Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Forum
 
The Pennsylvania Department of Aging held its fourth annual Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Forum in early November. This year’s forum focused on racial disparities and inequalities in early detection, diagnosis and treatment.

Read more here

The forum featured a panel discussion of caregivers of loved ones who lived with Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias.

Lisette Carbajal, a panelist who cared for her father who lived with Alzheimer’s, shared: “As a former millennial caregiver, learning to balance my personal and professional life was challenging. Caring for my father was always my number one priority. Therefore, it was important for my employer to understand my responsibility as his caregiver and provide me with the flexibility I needed to care for him.”

                           

Carol B. Amos, who cared for her mother who lived with Alzheimer’s, also sat on the panel. She shared: “Being a remote caregiver was mentally draining. It was hard watching Mom decline and struggle while we were trying to define our role as her adult children. The doctor said Mom did not meet the formal definition for Alzheimer’s but had Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). My brothers and I had to be advocates for our mother. Although we were relentless about obtaining an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, it was still devastating to know that Mom was actually on the debilitating path of Alzheimer’s disease. My brothers and I had many challenges during our Alzheimer’s journey but I cannot just talk about the issues. Our journey was filled with God’s rays of hope.”

                           

LOOKING BACK
 
House Legislative Activity 
  • House Bill 2536  (James) – Fiscal Code bill
    • Signed by the Governor, now known as Act 114
  • House Resolution 1043 (Boback) – Designates November 2020 as Family Caregiver Month
  • House Resolution 1080 (Samuelson) – Designates November 2020 as National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness and Family Caregiver Month
  • Senate Bill 1268 (Ward) – Certification of COVID-19 temporary nurse aides
  • Senate Bill 1350 (Browne) – Supplemental Appropriations bill
    • Signed by the Governor, now known as Act 17A
Senate Legislative Activity 
  • Senate Bill 1350 (Browne) – Supplemental Appropriations bill
    • Signed by the Governor, now known as Act 17A
  • House Bill 2536 (James) – Fiscal Code bill
    • Signed by the Governor, now known as Act 114 
Legislative Hearings
 
The House and Senate did not host any Aging-related hearings.
 
LOOKING AHEAD
 
The General Assembly will return in January for the 2021-2022 Legislative Session.
Virtual Events for Older Adults

Fraud BINGO – A fun and interactive presentation that teaches consumers how to protect themselves from investment scams and other financial fraud by playing a familiar game: Bingo.
  • Jewish Federation of Greater Harrisburg (Dauphin County) on Tuesday, December 15 from 11:00 a.m. to noon. For additional information, contact Cheryl Yablon, Senior Adult Director c.yablon@jewishfedhbg.org.
Reverse Mortgages – What Can You Expect? – Topics in this presentation include: What is a Reverse Mortgage, what do I need to qualify, what the procedures are for obtaining and retaining a reverse mortgage, financial requirements, alternative options to consider, what to avoid, drawbacks, your obligations and how you can repay the debt.
  • Foster Grandparent Program (Bradford County) on Friday, December 3 from 11 a.m. to noon. Open to program members.
  • Oley Valley Community Library (Berks County) on Tuesday, December 8 from 11 a.m. to noon. Contact ovclibrary@gmail.com to register or for more information.
  • Philadelphia Senior Center - Avenue of the Arts (Philadelphia County) on Thursday, December 17 from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. For information and participation, contact Edwina Griggs at 215-546-5879 ext. 229.
Cybersecurity: Keeping Yourself Safe Online – A program designed to help build cyber awareness and help you to keep your information safe and secure online. This presentation covers key topics like using secure websites, creating strong passwords, being aware of what you put on social media, and even tips for shopping online safely.
  • Messiah Lifeways/Pathways Institute for Lifelong Learning (Cumberland County) on Wednesday, December 2 from 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Open to Senior Center members.
  • Lancaster Neighborhood Senior Center (Lancaster County) on Friday, December 4 from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Open to Senior Center members.
  • Chicora Senior Center (Butler County) on Monday, December 7 from 11 a.m. to noon. Contact the Agency on Aging office at 724-282-3008 and reserve 48 hours in advance to attend.
  • South East Senior Center (Butler County) on Thursday, December 10 from 10 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. Open to Senior Center members.
  • Cranberry Senior Center (Butler County) on Monday, December 14 from 6 p.m. to
    7 p.m. Open to Senior Center members.
  • Mt. Chestnut Senior Center (Butler County) on Monday, December 21 from 11 a.m. to noon. Open to Senior Center members.
Avoiding Scams and ID Theft – A program that looks at how identities are stolen or compromised and identifies ways to protect yourself from common scams and fraud.
  • Mansfield Senior Center (Tioga County) on Wednesday, December 16 from 11 a.m. to noon. Open to Senior Center members. To participate, contact Dawn Vetter, Senior Center Manager at 570-662-2130.
Consumers and community groups can call 1-800-PA-BANKS or email informed@pa.gov for more information.
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