From employed to unemployed to retired - Without any savings
May 25, 2013 7:38 AM   Subscribe

My 61-year-old mother was just laid off and may never work again. She has no savings. What should she do?

We both live in Massachusetts, but we don't live together. She never married and I'm her only kid. She can't drive, and she has rotten teeth that would be expensive to fix. This plus her age make her an unlikely hire.

Our relationship is terrible, and besides that, I'm not going to be in a position to financially support her for another 5+ years. 10 years, if I'm being totally honest. I really need her to be self-sufficient for that time period, if not longer.

She signed up for unemployment benefits yesterday. She'll have 7 weeks of severance pay. If I understand her correctly, her company is covering the cost of COBRA until August 1. Getting any information from her is like pulling teeth, which is driving me nuts. I know it's just a matter of time before she's asking me for financial support, and I'd like to know that she's at least taken advantage of the assistance programs she's paid into her whole working life first.

Some specific questions:

- What do I need to know about unemployment benefits? How long do these last? Can much of this be done over the phone or online? It's difficult for her to get around.
- While she's on unemployment, would she be eligible for any kind of subsidized health insurance? MassHealth Basic says it's only for those who are *not* eligible for unemployment compensation and have been unemployed for more than a year. I'm not sure how much COBRA will cost, but I doubt she can afford it.
- While on unemployment, is she eligible for food stamps or subsidized housing?
- When unemployment runs out, can she start drawing on social security?

If you have any advice for me, I'd love to hear it. My throw-away email address is, if you'd prefer to respond anonymously.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The only advice I have for you, being on MA unemployment, is GO INTO THE OFFICE. Seriously, the phones are a nightmare, but the folks in the office (especially if you can get to the Woburn office) are dynamite, and they cut through the red tape for you much more quickly while you're sitting there than you ever could on the phone.
posted by xingcat at 7:53 AM on May 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

She's 61 and how many months? People can start taking social security at 62. It will be less than it would have been if they had waited until the "standard" age.

I do not know if there are any other rules that she would have to satisfy to be eligible to do this, and I do not know how (if at all) it would affect other things (like eligibility for food stamps or whatever), but I do know that it's at least possible in some cases.
posted by Flunkie at 7:57 AM on May 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

1. Unfortunately, she's going to need to proactively do legwork, or you're going to have to be entangled far more than you're going to want to be (given your relationship.) There is no middle ground here unless you can find her a guardian and prove she's a danger to herself (unable to do the work.) The good news is that you aren't legally liable for a lot of this stuff, unless you sign paperwork first.

2. Entitlement program eligibility almost always comes down to "what is your current income" (there are some complicated asset questions for Medicaid and MassHealth has lots of different programs) and "how long have you not been covered by health insurance." Unemployment compensation shouldn't be a barrier for getting food stamps, basically.

3. Much of what you need to set her up with may indeed require in-person visits to agencies, BUT, I recommend you go here to learn about things as much as possible first: " has been and will remain an online resource geared to Massachusetts residents in need of housing, food, health care, and other basic services. The primary purpose of the web site is to make it easier for people to find out where to go for help, who is eligible for benefits, and how to apply. makes this information available to anyone who needs services, free of charge, all in one place." They have a specific area for "senior resources."

4. MassGov also has a "Transitional Assistance" department website, but I think MassResources is probably more usable; here's a link to the locations for their in-person SNAP help.
posted by SMPA at 8:13 AM on May 25, 2013

Oh, and unemployment may or may not be a better deal than Social Security (if eligibility periods overlap) - it almost never is if you've been working part-time for the last year, but in many other cases it is a better deal (because you tend to make more per year over time.)

On the other hand, one of the basic principles behind unemployment coverage is that you're able to work; they definitely stop your eligibility if you go on disability payments, but you should ask Massachusetts directly whether receipt of retirement income affects unemployment eligibility.
posted by SMPA at 8:18 AM on May 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also depending on the circumstances of her layoff, she may have a case for age discrimination. How many others were laid off? Were they all older or all women? What was the reason given? Was her job eliminated or are they filling it with a younger less well paid worker? It might be worth her time to at least speak with an attorney. If they think the case is good they might take it on contingency. She should pull together what records she has like pay stubs and any performance evaluations or letters of commendation.
posted by agatha_magatha at 8:21 AM on May 25, 2013

What do I need to know about unemployment benefits? How long do these last? Can much of this be done over the phone or online?

You? Nothing, really. This is something that she will need to do for herself, involving confidential information like SSN, banking info if MA offers direct deposit, etc. Unless she's disabled in a way that she can't deal with basic bureaucracy type stuff on her own.

They typically last six months, though there may be extensions, other programs that she's eligible for, or special Massachusetts things I don't know about. During the worst of the recession the constant federal extensions meant that there were people who were able to spend more than a year on Unemployment. That seems less common now, though your mom might be a special case.

In my experience in New York State, this is done ENTIRELY over the phone and online. Sometimes you have to report to a physical location to attend a mandatory workshop or meet with an employment counselor, but it's rare and would happen after she was already signed up for benefits.

FWIW it sounds like your mom would be a great candidate to try to make use of the many services and programs that Unemployment offers, if she can get to her local office. Not sure about Mass, but in New York there are job boards, resume workshops, seminars on starting a small business, and all kinds of "a job, any job" type programs. If you're a young working professional the name of the game is usually to avoid these things as much as possible and keep your nose to the ground finding yourself something that will actually further your career. But your mom is the kind of person these programs were designed for. There might really be something she can do to be self-supporting, and the employment counselors and other services at her local Unemployment office might be able to help her figure out what that is.

There are also other social service offices tied into the same space, so often by attending a workshop at the Unemployment office you find out that you're eligible for food stamps, or that there's a state health plan that would work for you, etc.
posted by Sara C. at 9:13 AM on May 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh - and just spotted this. Open enrollment for commercial insurance programs in MA starts soon; COBRA ending (if you used the benefits recently) is also a qualifying event. Commonwealth Care seems relevant in this situation.
posted by SMPA at 9:14 AM on May 25, 2013

Oh... and if she does want to try to work, but is lacking in skills/knowledge, you may be interested to know that she's likely eligible for tuition/fee waivers at public colleges in MA.
posted by SMPA at 9:43 AM on May 25, 2013

61 isn't that old anymore. Help her to find a dentist or dental school that will accept a payment plan. Contact her local church and ask for volunteers to drive her around.

She can qualify for food stamps if her unemployment check still has her under the poverty line. The place where she applies for food stamps will also be able to direct you to other resources.

Don't let her give up. This is America, there is opportunity for everyone. My local grocery store had a young man working there (part-time) who is cannot do any task unsupervised. But he always remembers me and will come up and hug me and make my day a little brighter.

Wal-Mart greeters sit on stools and many of them don't even greet people.
posted by myselfasme at 10:07 AM on May 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

as long as her COBRA is being paid for, she's unlikely to qualify for MassHealth/Commonwealth Care. However, once that is dropped she should qualify... eventually. The application is long and she will have to submit income verification and it will be frustrating. But, what I wanted to say is that once she is on Commonwealth Care she will likely for eligible for cheap dental care at a Mass. Community Health Clinic. It's not very well advertised but there is a state program of community health clinics which often have dental offices. I qualify for free Commonwealth Care and have had a root canal, and several cavities filled for free. But, you will have to hunt to find one... I have to drive about an hour but it has definitely been worth it.
posted by at 10:55 AM on May 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

(also, MassHealth is technically the Mass. medicaid program. It's very difficult to actually get onto MassHealth. Commonwealth Care is the state subsidized plan, which has much less stringent conditions and decent coverage, and is also free if you are poor enough (like me.) Luckily, the application is the same for both and the state will figure out what she qualifies for, if anything. Be prepared for the application to be rejected for lack of verification paperwork, but if you are on top of it I think she will eventually get in...)

(also, you can pick up a CC application at the foodstamp office, which she should apply for probably as soon as the severance payments stop)
posted by at 10:59 AM on May 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I suggest you get yourself clear about just what kinds of help you realistically can give and will give. That can include getting her information (like you are trying to do here). Also, go over your budget and decide how much you are willing and able to put towards helping her and decide whether you are willing to give her cash or whether you feel a need to control what it gets spent on.

Start communicating early and often about how much and what kind of help you are willing and able to give during this crisis/life transition. Also communicate clearly what you will not do. Let her know she cannot live with you. But if you tell her that, you had better mean "even if that means you wind up homeless." If you think that is a real possibility, come to grips with accepting it as a possible outcome. If you personally cannot accept that, then she has an easy out and can dump on you and doesn't have to really get her act together.

Since you have a bad relationship and she is not forthcoming with info, dealing with you and how much you are willing to accept is all you can do.

I am on the street. I have a relative who periodically emails me trying to tell me how to fix my problems. I ignore a lot of those emails. I have plans of my own. Those plans are, in fact, working. It is just slow. Said relative does not want to acknowledge that I have a brain, I know what I am doing, etc. I suggest you avoid being like my relative. Do not try to "fix" your mother's life. That is her job. All you can deal with is your relationship to her. And that is about you learning how to live. Whether or not she learns how to live is her business, not yours.

I run a blog called San Diego Homeless Survival Guide. Resources listed on it are particular to where I am locally. But the attitude and some of the ideas would generalize. You might try perusing it for your own edification. If it starts looking like mom is not fixing her shit and might end up on the street, you could send her the link.
posted by Michele in California at 12:21 PM on May 25, 2013 [5 favorites]

Your Mom may be close to being able to collect social security and enroll in Medicare. That will take care of a lot of the worry, get on that!

Then we're looking into section 8 or housing for the aged. Food Stamps and bus cards.

Once she has medicare she may be eligible for dentures.

She may be able to get by on unemployment, and she can still enroll for other programs.

Point her in the right direction, but this is on her.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:27 PM on May 25, 2013

Unless she's seriously disabled she won't be eligible for Medicare until she's 65. She should seriously check out her local community college, they have all kinds of retraining programs, and they're generally free or very low cost. I'm a little older than your mother and expect to keep working until I'm 70, at least. She must have had a pretty decent job if they're giving her 7 weeks of severance pay; she can get another. Some subsidized housing for seniors will take people as young as 60, and the rent is based on income. A friend of mine lives in a subsidized senior building in Rhode Island, it's quite nice, she pays a couple hundred a month. Does she have a terrrible fear of dentists? If she's anywhere near Boston she should check out the dental school clinics.
posted by mareli at 6:59 AM on May 26, 2013

While on unemployment in MA she can continue COBRA (at 100% of the cost) for up to 18 months. She can apply for up to 80% reimbursement by filling out the MA form here. This is an excellent primer.
posted by Gungho at 9:44 AM on May 26, 2013

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