What you need to know about tech support scams

Chances are, an offer to repair your computer is bogus

By Steve Baker for Next Avenue


Credit: Getty Images

Over the last year or two, tech support scams have exploded. The fraudsters want to “remote in” (take control of a consumer’s computer), claiming there’s spyware or another dangerous problem, and offering to fix it. But there normally nothing wrong, and consumers pay $500 or more to fix a nonexistent “problem.”

Often, residents in senior living facilities fall victim to the scams.

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3 easy ways to give the perfect gift this season


Do you ever struggle to find the perfect Holiday gift for loved ones, only to settle for something just so you can cross them off your shopping list?

We’ve all done it—given a gift that we know the receiver won’t love. This season, consider a gift they won’t want to return. If you know someone who values the meaningful work we do at Presbyterian Manors of Mid-America, consider making a donation in his or her honor. These tribute gifts are also a great way to remember loved ones who are no longer with us.

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What loneliness is doing to your heart

As social creatures, we suffer when cut off from one another

By Emily Gurnon for Next Avenue


Credit: Getty Images

You may have heard that loneliness is hazardous to your health — and can even lead to an early death. Now, an analysis of 23 scientific studies gives us numbers that reveal just how sick it can really make you.

People with “poor social relationships” had a 29 percent higher risk of newly diagnosed heart disease and a 32 percent higher risk of stroke, according to the study, published July 1 in the British journal Heart.

That puts loneliness and social isolation on par with other known risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as anxiety and job strain, the researchers said. And it exceeds the risk posed by physical inactivity and obesity, said lead researcher Nicole Valtorta, of the Department of Health Sciences, University of York, England.

Given the results of the study, Valtorta said, “interventions to prevent coronary heart disease and stroke should take loneliness and social isolation into consideration.”

Such interventions could be relatively inexpensive, she added, especially given the fact that cardiovascular disease remains the most costly disease in the United States. It accounted for direct medical costs totaling $193 billion, according to a 2015 study from GoBankingRates.com.

There’s a difference

Loneliness and social isolation do not necessarily go hand in hand. You can be lonely in a crowd, or you can be by yourself and feel perfectly content. But when your experience is negative — you are not happy with the quality of your social interactions, or you’re grieving a loss — that “can be really disastrous for well-being,” Valtorta said.

Unlike other studies, Valtorta’s (which was published online in April) was the first to focus on whether people experiencing loneliness and isolation were at greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease. It excluded people who were lonely but already had the disease.

Studies involving 181,000 people living mainly in the U.S., Europe and Japan were examined as a part of the meta-analysis, and they were tracked for a range of time — between three and 21 years. Among those people, there were 4,628 heart attacks or related events and 3,002 strokes.

The age of the subjects varied, and it wasn’t possible given the data to conclude whether a 75-year-old lonely person was more likely to have a heart attack than a 50-year-old, Valtorta said. The researchers did not find evidence of a difference between men and women.

Other research on isolation and health

A separate 2015 meta-analysis by Brigham Young University researchers concluded that both actual and perceived isolation were associated with early death.

Social isolation corresponded with a 29 percent greater risk of premature death; loneliness corresponded with a 26 percent greater risk and living alone corresponded with a 32 percent greater likelihood, according to the study, published in Perspectives on Psychological Science. Social isolation and loneliness threatened longevity as much as obesity did, the study said.

Two of the Brigham Young researchers were also involved in a 2010 study that found loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The problem is only getting worse, the scientists said.

“Humans are naturally social. Yet, the modern way of life in industrialized countries is greatly reducing the quantity and quality of social relationships … over the past two decades there has been a three-fold increase in the number of Americans who say they have no close confidants,” the study said.

All of the studies reinforce the growing recognition of loneliness as a public health issue.

A nonprofit coalition in Britain has responded by initiating the Campaign to End Loneliness, which among other things aims to broaden the services and activities available to those who may be lonely.

What we should be doing

Brigham Young researcher Julianne Holt-Lunstad told Time magazine that nurturing close relationships as well as a “diverse set of social connections” is key. She said that policies to alleviate loneliness may be difficult to imagine but could include encouraging doctors to identify at-risk patients and rethink the way neighborhoods are designed, the magazine said.

“People’s response is oftentimes to say, ‘What are you going to do, tell everybody to give someone a hug?’” Time quoted Holt-Lunstad as saying. “But there are many potential ways in which this could be implemented.”

© Twin Cities Public Television – 2016. All rights reserved.

A sweet tradition

maggie-2-2 From the beginning of November, the sweet scent of holiday baking begins wafting from Maggie Carttar’s apartment at Lawrence Presbyterian Manor. Every year, Maggie bakes nearly 200 stollen, a traditional German fruit and nut bread, for family, friends, and almost everyone else she meets. She’s modified the recipe over the years, but it’s based on the stollen her mother and grandmother grew up making in Germany.

“By the time you make something 192 times you change the ingredients a little so you can afford them,” Maggie said.

The loaves are about the consistency of a bundt cake, but made with yeast. Maggie bakes hers with raisins and walnuts. She does them in batches of about 10, over 15 or so baking sessions.

“I had decided if the Manor didn’t have a stove for stollen, I wasn’t moving in,” Maggie said.
Then, she starts giving them away – first to her six children and their families, including 17 grandchildren. The school-age children get an extra stollen to give to a teacher.

The stollen also come along when the family goes on its traditional night of caroling throughout Lawrence. Maggie said this is their 60th year of spreading cheer, and it will include a swing through Presbyterian Manor. They’ll hire a bus to take them to about 10 locations. And at every stop, everyone gets a stollen.

Baked into Maggie’s stollen tradition is the history of the family who handed the recipe down to her. Maggie’s mother, Johanna “Jenny” Meyer, was born and raised in America. When she was a young woman, her family sent her to visit relatives in Germany. There, she met Theodore Stieghorst, and they fell immediately, madly in love. Jenny wanted to marry Theodore before she returned to America, but her grandfather convinced her to come home and exchange letters with her beau for a while instead.

“They got engaged by mail,” Maggie said. “He decided he would come over from Germany to marry his fiancée. He quit his job, bought his ticket – and then the First World War broke out. He was stuck. None of the ships were leaving.”

Theodore was conscripted into the German army and sent to battle. Jenny was undeterred. She faked a story about a sick grandmother that got her on a ship first to Sweden, then to Denmark. She made her way into Germany – enemy territory even though the U.S. was not yet in the war – and eventually got a job at a bank.

Theodore survived the war, and he and Jenny finally married in 1920. (Post-war conditions in Germany were so poor that one of their best wedding gifts was a dozen eggs.) Maggie and her brother were later born in Hamburg. With such a rich origin story, Maggie’s stollen is not your average holiday treat.

“It’s part of me. It’s absolutely part of me,” she said.

Turkey With a Twist: Rethinking Thanksgiving

Our readers tell how they’ve adapted tradition to changing times

By Liza Kaufman Hogan for Next Avenue


As Next Avenue readers gather together for Thanksgiving, many will be surrounded by family and friends they’ve celebrated with for years, sharing the same dishes they wouldn’t think of leaving off the menu.

And while they treasure tradition, some have adapted their customs to accommodate changes in their lives.

Last year, we asked our readers how they’ve reinvented the holiday to suit their needs and make the day more meaningful. Here’s what they said:

Popsicles and pinatas

Pamela Hastings from Port Angeles, Wash., says her family tired of the traditional Thanksgiving dinner years ago. Instead, she began hosting themed celebrations for her self-described family of foodies.

Three years ago, it was Thanksgiving-on-a-stick, with a menu that included stuffing muffins on sticks; a cherished family corn casserole made into balls and deep fried; pie folded over popsicle sticks and the turkey impaled by a large dowel. Another year it was all pies (potato pie, squash pie with pumpernickel bread crust, ricotta pie, artichoke pie, elk mincemeat pie and assorted dessert pies). Hastings once hosted a Mexican Thanksgiving, complete with a turkey piñata. This year the theme is Mediterranean, inspired by a friend’s baklava.

Goodbye, perfection — Hello, simplicity

Not everyone was as willing to be as creative with their meals as Hastings. Some readers said it was important to prepare a holiday meal that would make their grandmother proud with oven-baked, shiny brown turkeys and comfort food sides. Others traded in the Norman Rockwell-worthy turkey and trimmings for a simpler, low-stress meal.

“I don’t spend all day preparing food. We have a much simpler meal that includes some food prepared by our wonderful local grocery store and some made by myself or other family members,” says Elizabeth Y., of Virginia Beach, Va. ”In addition, I am working at job where I don’t get the Friday after Thanksgiving off — so, the holiday is no longer a four-day schmooze fest. It’s a simple gathering with those I love.”

Susan B. of Hudson, Wisc., says: “I always felt compelled to cook dinner like my mother, which was everything traditional.  Now my children just make their favorite dishes. It is always enough.”

Switching to healthier dishes

Let’s be honest, the average Thanksgiving meal packs a lot of calories. While some are happy to treat Thanksgiving like a $12.99 all-you-can-eat buffet, others prefer to stay on track with their healthful ways. Cooks, in turn, are finding ways to cut calories and fat from the sugary, butter-drenched dishes they grew up with.

“I don’t make the big feast my grandparents and parents used to, with all the calorie-laden dishes and three different pies!” writes Judy B. from Escondido, Calif. ”Mashed potatoes are now cauliflower mashed ‘potatoes.’ I don’t make stuffing because no one liked it except me, and I don’t need the extra calories. During the football games, we have changed from chips and dip to veggies and hummus.”

Katherine C. of Grand Rapids, Mich., says: “Pecan pie is no longer served. It should be called sugar pie with nut topping.”

Tofurkey roast and gluten-free foods

No matter how small the gathering, many hosts will have one or two guests who cannot eat certain foods or who follow a special diet. In the past few years, a lot of us have added gluten-free stuffing, vegan gravy and sugar-free fruit pies to the standard menu.

While her tofurkey roast may not make the cover of Martha Stewart Living, reader Linda Gonzalez, of Philadephia, Pa., says she’s thrilled to have it on her table, since she doesn’t eat meat.

Barbara Hoskins of Mesa, Ariz., says: “We have had to change the recipes to accommodate food allergies. Our turkey has to be gluten-free with no additives … We have stopped using dairy products because of dairy allergies. We have experimented with dairy-free, egg-free, gluten-free, garlic-free, and many other options.”

Family food wars

Of course, at times you do not want to mess with tradition. Families get used to certain dishes, and you change the menu at your peril.

“Every year we argue about the corn,”  says Janet S. of New Athens, Ill. ”We had scalloped corn for many years and then along came the corn casserole, the one made with cornbread mix. The first year I brought the ‘new recipe,’ they had a fit. I was told to go back to the old recipe and leave it that way. We are so locked in our traditions.”

At least two readers confessed to liking the canned, jellied cranberry over the various homemade versions that adorn Thanksgiving tables (and tablecloths) this time of year.

In an attempt to peacefully resolve the great cranberry sauce debate, we’ve put together a user poll (below) to settle once and for all whether ’tis better to serve homemade relish or just ease it out of the can (ridges and all), hoping it doesn’t slide off the other side of plate.

For those who want to add homemade cranberry sauce and a little kick to the meal, reader Dot Dickinson shared her friend Sherry’s recipe for Bourbon Cranberry Relish. We didn’t have time to run it through the Next Avenue test kitchen (a.k.a. the breakroom), but it looks lovely. Dot adds this helpful hint for the Thanksgiving cook in need of a break: “This is best if you taste the bourbon before adding it to the saucepan. It may take a couple of sips to make sure it is okay to add it to the cranberries.”

For something more traditional, try Pamela Hastings’ cranberry sauce, adapted from a Country Living recipe.

Shifting the calendar

Even if you are not hosting and cooking for a big family with different tastes for Thanksgiving, just getting there can be a stressful experience, as you try to not be trampled at the airport or tailgated on the highway.

Leah Antignas, of Oakland, Calif., figured out how to avoid the Wednesday evening turkey race a while ago. She says: “Instead of taking off work the day before to travel to family, we take off work the Monday after. My husband and I drive early Thanksgiving day from the Bay Area to L.A. so we can avoid the Wednesday traffic and arrive in time for the gathering. Long drive but little traffic — what a relief. We made this shift years ago and have never turned back.”

Meals with special guests

Some Next Avenue readers have decided to have their Thanksgiving meals with special people beyond their family members.

“Instead of inviting people to our home, we bring food to our church where we host a meal for those who have nowhere else to go. We serve and eat there, meeting many remarkable people,” Doroth Van Haaften of Idaho Falls, Idaho, wrote in to say.

Julie Tomlinson of Cary, N.C., says the traditional Thanksgiving family gathering is stressful and she winds up eating too much. Instead, she says, “I plan to create a family of my choosing, comprised of women in my age group, living with or near one another, helping and caring for each other. The Golden Girls dream of women across the country, and beyond. We will create new traditions. My contribution will be healthier meals.”

“It used to be all about the immediate family,” writes Susan H. of Mahopac, N.Y.  “However, with older parents (and) relatives passing away and some other family members who grow up and start their own family traditions, it’s more difficult to try to organize the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. The last few years, we’ve spent Thanksgiving with our friends instead of family.”

New families, new traditions

As families grow and add new members, the menu has inevitably changed. “We try to incorporate a special dish that each guest remembers from her family’s tradition: e.g. kimchi for a Korean-American; Brussels sprouts for our New England friends; mince pie for our English guests, along with our own family recipes,”  says Lynnett Evans of San Francisco, Calif.

“Our son married a New England girl, so squash on our table is a must (though the marriage is over)! One daughter married a fellow from the South, so we added sweet potato casserole to the menu … he’s still with us!” says HelenMarie M. of Fort Washington, Penn.

Moving more, sitting less

Even with crustless pumpkin pies and cauliflower mashed potatoes on the menu, our tendency is to eat beyond our recommended daily calorie intake. Many readers say they have added nature walks and hikes to their Thanksgiving Day traditions, for exercise and to enjoy the outdoors together.

We always walk after the meal. Well, most of us!” writes Leanna from Lewes, Del.

What they’re watching

Some traditions die hard: Many people wrote in to defend spending time on the couch watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, football and holiday movies. But Deborah R. of Churchville, Md., wrote poignantly of the change her family has made to make the day enjoyable for her mother-in-law who has dementia. “Instead of a more adult movie we might prefer, we watch ‘Peanuts’ cartoons she can understand and that we enjoy as well.”

Being thankful

And lest the meaning of the day get lost under all that food, many readers said they take time to focus on giving thanks.

Claudia Skelton, of Seattle, Wash., says her family uses the holiday to recall happy memories thinking “about previous family Thanksgiving events and (writing) a few words about those memories. Those memories are what I am thankful for.”

“The one tradition we will never change is having each person at the table tell something he or she is especially thankful for,” says HelenMarie of Fort Washington, Penn. ”This will probably be my dad’s last Thanksgiving. He is 97 and is having more difficulty negotiating the travel from his personal care community. So it will be special in that way.  Future family celebrations will evolve.

© Twin Cities Public Television – 2016. All rights reserved.

How to keep off extra pounds during the holidays

These seven practical steps can make a difference

By Rashelle Brown for Next Avenue


Credit: Thinkstock

With the holidays right around the corner, your calendar is probably already filling up with friendly parties, formal dinners and family gatherings. All of that celebrating can take a toll on the body. Polls and scientific studies estimate that many Americans gain between one and five pounds during the holiday season.

This wouldn’t be so bad, except that most of us won’t lose that weight over the next year. By the time we reach our fifties and beyond, the accumulation of those holiday pounds can pose a significant health risk. To help you enjoy this holiday season without gaining extra weight, here are seven tips you and your family can use:

7 practical, everyday tips

These seven tips are specific little things that are easy to implement throughout the holiday season and will help keep you from consuming more calories than you burn.

  1. Eat before attending events. Knowing that you have a holiday party coming up in the evening, you might think it’s a good idea to eat less throughout the day, but that’s actually setting yourself up for an overindulgence disaster. By eating healthy meals and snacks throughout the day, you’ll ensure a constant supply of energy and reduce the likelihood of party-time cravings and the associated bingeing.

Your best buffer against consuming a ton of empty calories at a party is to eat a fiber- and nutrient-dense meal or substantial snack right before you head to the party. Some good options are a lightly dressed salad with plenty of veggies and legumes, a bowl of bean soup or a healthy whole grain pilaf.

  1. Employ the every-other rule with alcohol. One of the biggest calorie culprits at holiday gatherings is that cup of cheer. Alcoholic drinks can contain 80 to 500+ calories per serving and, what’s worse, studies have shown that drinking alcohol makes it likely you’ll consume more food calories as well. One of the tactics I describe in my weight-loss book, Reboot Your Body: Unlocking the Genetic Secrets to Permanent Weight Loss, is what I call the “every-other” rule, which requires you to drink a full glass of water between every alcoholic beverage you consume. Doing this makes you feel fuller and keeps you hydrated, which can be important for regulating hunger signals.
  2. Go green, and red and orange. Some holiday events are more formal affairs, involving sit-down dinners rather than roaming appetizer platters. In those instances, you can greatly reduce the number of calories you consume by opting for the plant-based entrée and by starting with a large salad free of meats, cheeses and creamy dressings. By filling up on fibrous vegetables, legumes and whole grains, you’ll be less likely to overeat when the dessert tray comes rolling by.
  3. Double down on exercise. Another good way to fight holiday weight gain is by offsetting extra calories consumed with more calories burned. If you already exercise regularly, now is the time to ramp up your routine, either by adding more minutes or by upping the intensity.

If you don’t exercise, but are healthy enough to do so, then starting now — rather than waiting for Jan. 1 to roll around — is a good idea. If you can’t dedicate a big chunk of time to exercise every day, look for ways to work more activity into your normal daily routine. Breaking up a workout into two shorter sessions is one good strategy, but doing many short bouts of exercise throughout the day is just as effective in terms of the calorie burn. These short “activity snacks” can also be a good way to re-energize whenever you find yourself feeling sluggish.

  1. Rethink your holiday traditions. There’s no doubt that food and drink are important elements of many holiday traditions, but I encourage you to ask yourself whether they should be the central elements of those traditions. Imagine a holiday season that places more emphasis on the gathering and fellowship among friends and family and less emphasis on the meals and treats.

At my family’s gatherings, many things change from year to year, but one thing remains the same: There is always too much of everything. By taking a more moderate approach and limiting your holiday smorgasbord to a very few delicious traditional dishes, you can actually create a greater sense of enjoyment. With less competition on the buffet table, guests can slow down and better appreciate what’s in front of them.

  1. Start your day by setting your intentions. This is a quick and easy strategy to implement, and by doing it every day it becomes powerfully effective. When you first wake up, before you do anything else, take one or two minutes to set your healthy habit intentions for the day. Think about the events you’ll be attending and how you plan to navigate them. Remind yourself that the holiday season is about connecting with others and practicing gratitude and compassion, and that the overconsumption of food and drink doesn’t need to be a part of that.
  2. Share your goals with family and friends. One of the keys to behavior change I write about in my book is building a strong social network to support your healthy habits. By telling others about your healthy holiday goals you gain two advantages. First, you reduce or eliminate potential obstacles; once your friends and family know about your goals, they’ll be less likely to put you in tempting situations and more likely to offer emotional support. Second, by making your intentions known to others, you add an important accountability check against your actions. You won’t be as likely to grab another cookie or glass of champagne in front of a friend who’s part of your accountability circle.

By implementing these tips, you can create and participate in a holiday season that’s festive, full of enjoyment, and missing nothing but the extra pounds.

I don’t know about you, but this holiday season I’m looking forward to a Jan. 1 that doesn’t involve an emergency weight loss plan!

© Twin Cities Public Television – 2016. All rights reserved.

Moving together to reduce the risk of falls

Strength and conditioning classes focus on fall prevention and connecting with others

By Sherri Snelling for Next Avenue


Credit: Getty Images

Dance is for everybody. I believe it came from the people and it should always be delivered back to the people.

– Alvin Ailey

Verine Morris, 42, has spent more than a decade with a fear of falling. Wheelchair-bound for 10 years after a nasty fall at work, followed by a terrifying car accident, she decided she needed to overcome her anxiety and learn how to move independently again. This epiphany led Morris to Celeste Carlucci’s New York City-based classes, Fall Stop MOVE STRONG.

Carlucci, a former Alvin Ailey dance student who performed with Broadway’s legendary choreographer Bob Fosse (Chicago, Cabaret), has spent more than 20 years as a fitness and wellness expert teaching movement and body strengthening. Her fall prevention-designed class technique was created primarily to help those over 50 focus on proper alignment, posture and what she calls “the joy of movement.”

Fall prevention through ‘fun and community’

It is this last element that draws so many older adults — most of whom are in their 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s — to her weekly classes. Or as Carlucci states, “We keep up with exercise when it’s joyful and not spoon-fed medicine. That is what makes these classes unique — it’s the sense of fun and community.” (Morris is more than a decade younger than the average student in Carlucci’s classes. But she says the older students have become both friends and mentors and she finds her older dance mates “inspiring — I want to be able to move like them when I’m 90.”)

“A good teacher is an entertainer and that is what Celeste delivers — great entertainment that makes us forget about age for a while,” says Tom Grubb (pictured below), 76, who has been taking her classes for the last five years.

A physician directed Grubb to Carlucci’s classes after Grubb fell and broke his arm. He had been walking his dog on a Manhattan street that was slippery with melting snow. He also had balance problems.

As a pianist and music teacher at The Juilliard School, Grubb says, “I understand that nothing gets better without practice, so I have dedicated myself to the routine of taking Celeste’s classes twice a week. One thing I like is that Celeste doesn’t treat us like old people.”

While the Fall Stop MOVE STRONG classes average a ratio of 10-to-1 women to men, a study showed men over 50 are more likely to fall than women of the same age.

All too common

Every year, 2.8 million older Americans are treated in emergency departments and 800,000 patients are hospitalized because of a fall injury, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In fact, more than one out of four older people fall each year. But less than half tell their doctor.

Falling once can double the chance of falling again, according to research from the Fall Prevention Center of Excellence at the University of Southern California Andrus Gerontology School.

Often, older adults who have fallen restrict their activity by not leaving the house. Yet statistics show 55 percent of falls among the older population occur in the home.

Fall season means falls prevention

While health professionals say falling is not a normal part of aging, the causes for falling — especially as we age — can include: trip hazards in the home (such as throw rugs, poor lighting, lack of grab bars in bathrooms); medications that cause dizziness and poor vision or hearing.

However, the most important risk for falling is lack of good balance, strength and flexibility, which makes finding an appropriate exercise (or other) program to address these physical issues imperative as we grow older. In fact, the CDC website states that, “When a person is less active, they become weaker and this increases their chances of falling.”

Starting on Sept. 22 (the first official day of fall) and running through Sept. 28, awareness campaigns on preventing falls are promoted across the country, many of them at the 26,000 local senior centers and supported by the National Council on Aging (NCOA).

As one of NCOA’s Healthy Aging initiatives, this is the ninth year of the National Falls Prevention Awareness program. It encourages local social and community-based services to offer activities educating older adults on falls prevention. The NCOA provides resources and information through its Falls Prevention Resource Center.

Finding power in the body and the community

Morris says that after taking Carlucci’s classes, her fear of falling has diminished and she now has the courage to take risks.

In fact, risking getting out of the wheelchair is a goal she has accomplished. Morris now frequently walks without assistance around her Manhattan neighborhood and told me, “I hear Celeste’s voice when I’m walking on my own and I feel empowered. I have my freedom back.”

Morris has lost 57 pounds since starting the falls prevention classes a little over a year ago. But the more important achievement, she said, is conquering her anxiety about falling.

“Celeste is a godsend,” added Morris. “I spent 11 years living in fear and in a wheelchair but these classes have challenged my body to work hard and I’ve gain a renewed confidence in exactly what our bodies are made to do. And with my new friends at these classes, I am not alone anymore.”

Watch Carlucci teaching a Fall Stop MOVE STRONG class.

© Twin Cities Public Television – 2016. All rights reserved.

The best new personal finance apps and sites

Help for car buyers and investors, plus a chatbot craze

By Richard Eisenberg for Next Avenue


Credit: Getty Images

Not long ago, new personal finance apps and sites were all the rage. They’d help you size up your finances (Mint, FlexScore), manage your debt (CreditKarma, Credit Sesame) and invest smarter and for less money (Wealthfront, Betterment, Future Advisor, Blooom). But based on what I saw at the annual Finovate conference in New York City last week, I’d say: Game over.

Sure, there are still a few eager entrepreneurs conjuring up clever money-management tools for your smartphones, laptops and tablets. I’ll tell you about two shortly.

But the 10th annual FinovateFall program, presenting the latest in fintech to 1,500 attendees, was mostly about helping banks add electronic arrows to their quivers through online banking so they can attract and keep customers — especially Millennials.

“In the early days of Finovate, we saw more presenters trying to disrupt the banking model and go around banks,” Greg Palmer, the vice president of Finovate and host of FinovateFall 2016, told me. Back then, they were dreaming up personal financial management (PFM) tools. “Now, companies are realizing they need to go through banks. Also, I’ve noticed on the flipside, that banks are more willing to engage in technology. There’s a fear of being left behind — no bank wants to be the last one,” said Palmer.

Prime target: Millennials

And why the Millennial magnet?

“A lot of bankers are concerned about losing that generation,” said Palmer. “Millennials are in a bucket all their own at the moment for banks. That’s either fantastic or terrifying, depending on your point of view.”

The low-hanging fruit is ripe. Many Millennials are worried about their financial future; according to a Wells Fargo survey I blogged about, 64 percent think they won’t accumulate $1 million in savings over their lifetime. But Millennials are also three times more likely than boomers to bank using mobile devices, the 2016 FIS Consumer Banking PACE Index noted. They’re also four times more likely to use mobile apps from their primary financial institution than another source.

Do you want to chatbot?

The top trend at this year’s Finovate (I’ve been attending since 2012): Chatbots for bank customers, with pseudohumans texting, emailing and conversing, answering your questions like: how much you’ve been spending; whether your paycheck was deposited and what to do with a bonus you received as well as helping you transfer cash between accounts; pay bills or find a nearby branch.

Finovate featured Clinc’s BankCoach (“a supersmart Siri for your finances,” said Clinc’s Andrew Bank), Yodlee’s Envestnet (“dynamic intelligence to make better financial decisions”) and Kore’s Banking Bot, among others. Kore’s Executive Vice President, Sales David Schreffler told the audience: “It’s not whether to have a bot, but how soon can you have one in the market?’

Perhaps the better question is: Are chatbots ready for customers?

A recent Forrester Research report warned that most banks should hold off offering chatbots for two to three years, until the artificial intelligence technology has improved. Said Forrester analyst Peter Wannemacher: “While someone may not fret much when ordering a taco is clunky or doesn’t work, the stakes are too high when it comes to actions and advice related to people’s money.”

Two new offerings worth considering

Chatbots aside, I was intrigued by two offerings for Next Avenue’s 50+ audience: the AutoGravity car-financing service and the M1 Finance roboadviser.

AutoGravity, one of the six presenters voted Best of Show by the audience, aims to disrupt the new-car financing process. The premise: Know your payment options before walking into the dealership. Serge Vartanov, AutoGravity’s chief marketing officer, says the current system “is suffering from a customer experience gap and a technology gap. It’s where travel was 10 years ago and the taxi industry was five years ago.”

Currently, AutoGravity offers a useful research tool that lets you compare new-car payments on particular models by downloading the app on iOS or Android or by going to the AutoGravity site. If you live in California, you can also use AutoGravity to zip through a financing application and get approved; that feature is due to expand to the 10 largest states by the end of this year and nationwide next year.

You’re not necessarily guaranteed the best financing terms that you might find by shopping around on your own, though. AutoGravity’s finance deals are with its affiliate lenders, which include carmakers and big banks. “We give you a set of options compared to the current experience where you need to spend hours researching,” Vartanov told me.

M1 Finance bills itself as an online roboadviser “for long-term investors.” Translation: You buy stocks and stock- or bond ETFs (no mutual funds) through M1 and note your investment allocation preferences — percentages to keep in different stock and bond sectors. M1 will then automatically rebalance your portfolio as necessary.

For example, when you want to sell a certain dollar amount, M1 will look to see which parts of your portfolio comprise a higher percentage than you initially wanted and will first sell from there. Similarly, when your stock dividends arrive, M1 deposits them in portions of your portfolio that are underweighted.

“It’s automation, but with customization,” said Brian Barnes, CEO and founder of M1 Finance. “It’s as easy to manage as a savings account.” And if you’d like to select one of M1’s template portfolios (savings, general investing, retirement), you can do that, too.

The long-term part? “Traditional wirehouse firms are trading platforms and charge by commission, so they push customers to make a ton of trades and you’re charged 10 bucks every time,” said Barnes. M1 charges a flat 0.35 percent per year and takes its cut quarterly.

In the future, he said, M1 hopes to add checking services and bill-paying features. But no chatbot for now.

© Twin Cities Public Television – 2016. All rights reserved.

Should I buy long-term care insurance?

Next Avenue’s Money Editor struggles to answer the question

By Richard Eisenberg for Next Avenue


I turned 60 recently and celebrated in four ways:

  • A fantastic family vacation in Spain
  • A delicious dinner in New York City with my wife
  • A shingles vaccine (you’re supposed to get one at 60)
  • A phone call with a long-term care insurance salesman

That last one is weighing heavily on me. I can’t decide whether my wife and I should buy long-term care insurance policies. Few people do: Only about 8 percent of Americans have them and just 105,000 long-term care insurance policies were bought in 2015.

As the Money & Security Editor at Next Avenue, however, I know how outrageously expensive long-term care is and that Medicare generally doesn’t cover it.

The high cost of long-term care

I’ve written and edited plenty of pieces with nausea-inducing figures: The median annual cost of a private room in a nursing home is now $92,378…The median annual cost of an in-home health aide is $46,332…The typical 65-year-old has a 52 percent chance of needing long-term care services and supports at some point…

As the son of two parents who’ve had live-in caregivers, I’ve seen the need first-hand. And as the father of two twentysomething sons, I don’t want any long-term care costs I incur to become a financial burden for them.

I also know that premiums for long-term care policies can be expensive, and only grow higher the older you are when you apply. Annual rate increases are generally 2 to 4 percent in your 50s but “start to be 6 to 8 percent in your 60s,” according to the American Association for Long-Term Care Insurance (AALTCI).

According to a paper just presented by the University of Pennsylvania’s Ami Ko at the Retirement Research Consortium in Washington, D.C., and citing stats from Broker World magazine, the average annual premium of a typical policy has tripled over the last decade, from $1,000 to $3,000. And that’s just the average — policies can easily cost double that.

A Kaiser Health News piece recently said that yearly premiums for long-term care insurance with inflation protection can be as high as $4,406 for a 55-year-old woman, according to the AALTCI. That article also told the sad tale of a 69-year-old California woman whose monthly long-term care premiums have nearly quadrupled over the past two years. The story noted, too, that New Yorkers who bought coverage from Genworth Financial were hit with a 60 percent premium increase in October.

The problem with waiting to buy a policy

I also know that if you wait too long to buy a long-term care policy, you’re likely to be denied coverage due to your age or health. (Obamacare hasn’t come to long-term care.) According to the AALTCI site, 23 percent of long-term care insurance applicants in their 60s were declined in 2010 (its most recent data); 14 percent in their 50s were. The AALTCI says the best age to apply for long-term care insurance and “health-qualify” is in your mid-50s. Missed it.

A few health reasons you might be turned down for long-term care insurance, according to the U.S. Administration on Aging: you have a progressive neurological condition such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s; you have metastatic cancer; you have any form of dementia or cognitive dysfunction or you have AIDS.

Drawbacks to buying long-term care insurance

On the other hand…

Insurance companies keep dropping out of this market because they can’t seem to make a buck selling long-term care insurance. As Ko wrote in her paper, “a decade ago, there were more than one hundred insurance companies writing private long-term care insurance policies. Today, only a dozen remain.” Major carriers that have left include MetLife and Prudential.

That makes me wonder whether a company selling a policy I buy today will stand behind it (or even be in business) when, or more accurately if, I need it in, say, 20 or 30 years.

I also wonder whether my wife and I would be able to afford future premiums, given the insurers’ predilection to jack rates up — often with double-digit annual increases.

And, I wonder, even if I can shell out the premiums year after pricey year and the insurer is still in business when I need long-term care, can I depend on the company to make good on its promises and pay the covered benefits?

Color me skeptical.

At a 2014 Aging in America conference workshop I attended, a lawyer spoke of the work his firm did representing long-term care policyholders and their families in their battles to get claims paid. “This is a big problem,” said Alan Kassan, a lawyer with Kantor & Kantor in Northridge, Calif. “You pay for the insurance and when it’s time to collect the benefits, you get the bad news.”

What financial advisers usually recommend

The conventional wisdom of financial planners on whether to buy long-term care insurance is this: If you’re wealthy enough to self-insure, you should. If you’re poor, you can expect Medicaid to pay your long-term care costs. But if you’re in what The SCAN Foundation Chief Executive Dr. Bruce Chernof calls “The Big Middle,” that’s when you need to decide whether to buy or to just count on your savings and good luck to see you through.

A call with a long-term care insurance salesman

With all this in mind,  I responded to the mailing I received from my alma mater pitching discounted long-term care policies. That led to the call with the insurance salesman. Let’s call him Irv.

Irv said my wife and I would need to spend an hour with him on the phone so he could ask us some questions. My wife was not pleased to hear this.

When Irv called, we soon learned why he wanted so much time. Much of it was for him to ask us a battery of questions about our health, medications and medical histories. My wife, who has little tolerance for this kind of thing, hung up after a few minutes, leaving me to speak for the two of us. Note to long-term care salespeople: Maybe don’t start the conversation by asking “What is your weight?”

I told Irv that I was diagnosed with diabetes 15 years ago and have it under control, through medications and weight loss. I also said I take a statin for my cholesterol, which is also good these days.

A big, unpleasant surprise

Here’s where I got a big, and unpleasant, surprise: If I chose to wait five more years to buy the policy Irv recommended, from Mutual of Omaha, I’d be rejected. That company won’t sell long-term care coverage to someone who has had diabetes for 20 years, Irv said.

I also saw his spreadsheet calculations showing that the same insurer’s long-term care premiums could be dramatically higher or lower depending on the terms of the coverage I selected.

For instance, I could keep premiums down by not getting an inflation rider. Trouble is, it’s about 99.99 percent certain that inflation overall will rise, as will long-term care costs.

And, I saw, the more dollars I’d want the policy to pay out in benefits, the more I’d pay in premiums. Similarly, the more years of coverage I’d get, the more I’d pay.

So to keep premiums “affordable,” I realized, I’d likely want a policy paying much less than the actual cost of, say, a private room in a nursing home; coverage lasting no more than five years; a long elimination (waiting) period before benefits kick in and no more than 3 percent annual inflation protection.

Ballpark figure: a policy might cost my wife and me about $6,500 a year for expenses we might never incur.

What one sharp adviser says

I still couldn’t decide. So I turned to Allan Roth, a topnotch Certified Financial Planner at Wealth Logic in Colorado Springs, Colo. and an occasional Next Avenue writer.

“For those neither wealthy nor least well-off, I generally recommend against long-term care insurance,” Roth said. “The main reason to buy would be to protect some inheritance for heirs and that’s not the main purpose of the portfolio. Because pure long-term care policies guaranteeing fixed payments no longer exist, the risk of continued huge rate increases after five or 10 years is too great.”

Roth, who’s 59 and doesn’t own long-term care insurance (he self-insures), reminded me that there are now hybrid policies that combine life insurance and long-term care insurance with fixed payments. But, he noted, “they are generally very expensive.” And neither my wife nor I need more life insurance.

Where I wound up

As of today, we aren’t going to buy long-term care insurance. I think the price is too steep and the payments are too dicey.

Instead, we’re saving as much as we can to self-insure and trying to stay healthy.

Put us in the fingers-crossed camp of the 39 percent of Next Avenue readers in our online survey last year who called themselves “somewhat confident” they’d be able to pay for the long-term care supports and services they’re likely to need as they get older.

That said, I’m also wishing the insurance industry, the government or both figure out a way for Americans to get truly affordable long-term care coverage they can count on. Sadly, I think that’s a long-term wish.

© Twin Cities Public Television – 2016. All rights reserved.

Superheroes of caregiving need better support

More resources are vital to lighten the load of family caregivers

By Terry Fulmer for Next Avenue


Credit: Getty Images

Rosemary Rawlins feels a deep sense of gratitude for what she learned from her aging parents while providing them with help and comfort. Her father had dementia and her mother suffered with COPD. “My parents brought me into the world,” Rawlins recalls, “but also taught me how to leave it with dignity.” She is a family caregiver.

Being a caregiver can be deeply rewarding, but it can also require significant, even heroic, sacrifices. In Rosemary’s case, there was the hasty, chaotic relocation of her parents from New York to her community in Virginia after her father’s aneurysm. The ongoing advocacy with his assisted living facility when his behavior became erratic and violent. The middle-of-the-night visits to the emergency room.

A superhuman feat

Rosemary Rawlins is one of more than 30 million family caregivers of older adults in the United States, one of a legion of modern-day superheroes.

As president of the John A. Hartford Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the care of older adults, I believe that we should celebrate and thank these heroes for going above and beyond. They do both simple, everyday things (like visiting and talking to their family members) and they shoulder more complex tasks (like managing transportation, medications, insurance claims and even hospital-level interventions like wound care), often without any training or support.

The AARP Policy Institute estimates that family caregivers provide unpaid care worth $470 billion annually. This contribution is generally made freely, with love, for spouses, parents, siblings and friends.

But let’s be clear: there are costs. There are the financial costs, in spent-down savings, compromised retirement options and lost productivity at work, sometimes even foregone careers. Then there are the health costs. Family caregivers are at much greater risk for depression, heart disease, and a whole range of ongoing health problems, and their self-care is often overlooked.

Imagining a different world

As quiet superheroes, some caregivers struggle against enormous obstacles to save the day, day after day, delivering the care their family members need. But what if, instead of being required to summon superpowers to accomplish this, our caregivers and their families had a super system of programs and resources that met their needs?

Imagine if they had reliable access to:

  • Better transitions of care, to ensure families are truly supported and prepared to care for their loved ones when they move between the hospital, skilled nursing facility and the family home
  • A well-organized constellation of social services, such as transportation, counseling and housing options
  • Well-trained and reasonably paid direct care workers to deliver complex and physically strenuous home health services when things get tough;
  • Adult day care and respite programs to give caregivers a break when the hours, days and weeks of care inevitably leave them exhausted and needing to attend to their own lives
  • Earlier access to palliative care and, where appropriate, hospice care, and
  • A health care workforce that truly understands the unique health needs of older adults, committed to understanding and supporting their goals of care

All of these components exist to varying degrees in communities around the country. However, they are not easy to find, are not evenly distributed and may not be affordable for many families. Often it takes an expert (and paid) geriatric care manager (usually a nurse or social worker) to work out the right combination of services and supports.

The brighter side

The increased need for family caregiving is part of a larger, positive picture. Our aging population represents a powerful success story that has increased lifespans and enabled millions of people to live well into their 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond. It has created opportunities for many of us to learn about the transformative joys and rewards that come with caring for others.

Caregivers, however, can’t and shouldn’t have to do this on their own. They should not have to be superheroes. If we want to improve care for older people, one of our best strategies is to recognize the importance and bravery of caregivers, then strengthen our system to give them the support they need.

Caregiver superheroes deserve a super system that will allow them to focus on the vulnerable people they love, maintain their own health and take off the cape.

© Twin Cities Public Television – 2016. All rights reserved.