November 28, 2023

Outsmart Unplanned Medical Costs: 10 Steps for Managing the Unexpected

Older adults can safeguard themselves from the physical, mental and emotional toll of unexpected medical costs.

The National Council on Aging estimates that 16.5 million Americans over 65 are financially insecure. These adults — whose income falls well below the federal poverty level — have trouble paying the rising costs of housing, food, transportation and routine medical care.

Added expenses associated with an unexpected medical diagnosis or event, like a fall, stroke, or cancer, can devastate their well-being.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has even put a name to the distress associated with the economic burden of a cancer diagnosis. NCI calls this “financial toxicity” and recognizes that added money worries during an already stressful time can lead to depression and anxiety. Some may even experience other physical and emotional challenges, including:

  • Physical stress, which impairs the immune system and makes it harder to stay healthy
  • Difficulty sleeping, which causes fatigue, irritability and low energy
  • Reduced emotional resiliency, limiting coping skills


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10 ways to prepare for and manage unplanned medical costs

Older adults can take steps to prepare for and ease the burden of unexpected medical expenses. Below are 10 ways they can be ready to manage the unexpected.

1. Meet with a financial advisor.

No one should wait until the unexpected happens. Older adults should talk with a financial advisor and map out various medical scenarios to see the impact on their finances.

2. Plan and save.

A savings plan can help older adults prepare for unexpected health care costs and non-medical expenses associated with care, including any necessary travel or accommodations.

3. Understand health insurance and benefits.

It’s important to understand health insurance coverage well before it’s needed. Older adults who become ill should ask their health insurance company about appointing a specific case manager they can talk to each time they call.

4. Organize and track all bills and health insurance information.

A plan to manage health care bills and insurance information helps with organization during an unplanned medical diagnosis. Older adults should keep track of the following:

5. Speak up.

Older adults should share their worries about health care finances with providers soon after a diagnosis. Often, providers can point out helpful resources.

6. Ask about financial assistance.

Many hospitals offer financial assistance, including payment plans, reduced rates, patient assistance, patient care navigators or charitable help.

7. Consider tax implications.

Some medical expenses are tax deductible. Older adults should meet with an accountant to discuss which documented expenses qualify.

8. Arrange a meeting with human resources (HR).

Those adults still working should make time to meet with their HR department. An HR consultant can explain access to paid time off, sick leave or other benefits.

9. Stick with the treatment plan.

Older adults can avoid additional costly unexpected hospital or emergency room visits by following the treatment plan developed by their doctor. If patients cannot afford prescribed medications, providers can often suggest alternative options.

10. Ask for (and accept) help.

Friends and family are always looking for ways to contribute. Loved ones can bring meals, clean, offer medical and financial expertise, help organize bills, or just lend a sympathetic ear.

Adding up unplanned medical costs

Unplanned medical costs can catch anyone off guard, causing strain on finances and peace of mind. Older adults on fixed incomes and tight budgets are especially vulnerable to the unpredictable costs of an accident or serious medical diagnosis. With proper preparation, our aging population can better manage the unexpected.