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Friday, July 29, 2016

Research Shows How Visual Perception Slows with Age

Older adults experience deficits in inhibition, which can affect how quickly they process information visually, according to a new study involving the University of Arizona.

Visual Peerception slows with ageNewswise, July 29, 2016— Grandparents may be some of the best storytellers around, in the sense that they usually have plenty of stories to tell. What they're not always as good at, however, is staying on topic when they regale others with their tales.

Indeed, what might begin as an account about their snowy trek to school could easily go off on tangents about the time they visited the Grand Canyon or their granddaughter's recent soccer game.

Staying on topic may be more difficult for older adults than it is for younger people because older adults begin to experience a decline in what is known as inhibition -- the ability to inhibit other thoughts in order to pursue the storyline.

Evidence for inhibition deficits in older adults has appeared in studies that task participants with completing a familiar phrase with an unfamiliar word. For example, when asked to complete out loud the sentence "I take my coffee milk and ..." with the word "pajamas" instead of "sugar," older adults are more likely to first respond with "sugar" than young participants because they have a harder time inhibiting the high-probability word to complete the sentence.

Decline in inhibition also can affect visual perception, as is demonstrated by new research, involving the University of Arizona, that is adding to science's understanding of how vision changes with age.

Inhibition is an important part of neural processing throughout the brain, and it plays a significant role in visual perception. For example, evidence suggests that when we look at an object or a scene, our brain unconsciously considers alternative possibilities.

These competing alternatives inhibit one another, with the brain effectively weeding out the competition before perceiving what is there, says Mary Peterson, professor of psychology and director of the Cognitive Science Program in the UA Department of Psychology.

With regard to vision, age-related declines in the efficiency of inhibitory processes have been demonstrated in research involving simple perception tasks, such as the ability to detect symmetry and discriminate between shapes.

Peterson and her collaborators set out to see if the same deficits are evident when it comes to more complicated visual tasks. Their findings, published in the Journal of Vision, suggest that they are.

Peterson and her fellow researchers -- lead author John A.E. Anderson at York University in Toronto, M. Karl Healey at the University of Pennsylvania and Lynn Hasher at the University of Toronto -- were interested specifically in what is known as figure-ground perception, in which two areas in a person's visual field share a border.

If you imagine a white heart on a black background, for example, the heart is the "figure" -- with its definitive shape -- and the black background is the "ground," which seems to simply continue behind the figure.

In the lab, researchers showed on a screen a series of small, symmetrical white-on-black silhouettes, created by Peterson and her UA students, to two different groups: young participants with an average age of about 20 and older participants with an average age of about 66.

Participants were asked to determine whether each white "figure" depicted a familiar object, such as an apple, or a novel object -- a meaningless shape.

Of the novel-object images presented, half showed a meaningless white "figure" against a black "ground" but included a border between black and white that could suggest a meaningful object in the black portion of the image.

For example, the border of one meaningless white shape suggested the outline of two seahorses in the black area. This kind of complex image requires that substantial inhibitory competition take place in the brain before an object is perceived.

"For a long time my students and I have been investigating how we see the world. Our work has suggested that the brain first detects all the borders in a scene and then for every border, accesses object properties -- essentially different interpretations -- on both sides," Peterson said.

"These two interpretations compete by inhibiting each other, and whichever one has more evidence in favor of it is going to exert more inhibition on the other one to win the competition."

In the end, younger and older participants both came to the same conclusions about whether the white objects were familiar.

However, it took longer overall for older adults to come to that conclusion, especially when images presented more inhibitory competition.

The findings support and further evidence that older adults experience age-related deficits in inhibition related to vision.
"This is particularly interesting as it suggests that distraction is being processed extremely rapidly, and without conscious awareness, but that older adults are less able to tolerate this ambiguity than younger adults," said Anderson of York University. "

This research may have practical importance for how perception changes with age as well, particularly in situations of low visibility -- possibly fog, bad lighting, et cetera -- when the identity of shapes is harder to discern."

The researchers believe that age-related inhibitory deficits are due to reduced functioning of GABA neurotransmitters in the brain, which are thought to mediate inhibition. However, more research is needed to be certain, Peterson said.

"There is going to be more or less competition in some of the scenes you look at over the course of the day," Peterson said, "so the prediction is that when there is high competition, older adults will take longer to resolve -- to see -- the objects in that scene."

Debt and Continued Spending Can Keep Retirement from Being Anything but Golden for Boomers

How to make retirement 'golden'
Four in ten middle-income retirees must make adjustments to compensate for a significant financial shortfall in retirement

July 29, 2016 /PRNewswire/ -- A majority (53 percent) of America's non-retirees think that they will pay off their debts before retirement, however only 23 percent of retirees actually report being debt free, and 38 percent of retired Boomers have had to adjust their spending to compensate for a financial shortfall in retirement, according to a new study commissioned by Bankers Life Center for a Secure Retirement® (CSR).

As Baby Boomers struggle to reduce their debt before retiring, 60 percent of non-retirees still spent as much or more than their household incomes in 2015.

The study—Paying for the New Retirement: Responsibilities and Challenges for Middle-Income Boomers—reveals that more than eight in ten middle-income Boomers (81 percent) currently have some debt, and among those who are retired, 77 percent still carry debt.

Six in ten (60 percent) non-retired middle-income Boomers report they are spending as much or more than their household income, making it difficult to build their retirement nest egg.

Of those who are spending more than their income, more than half (55 percent) say it is because of bills, debt, loans or other expenses. One in six (15 percent) say health or medical issues are to blame.

Between their debt burdens and continued spending, 69 percent of Boomers don't believe or don't know if they have enough money to live comfortably to age 85, which, according to the Social Security Administration, is their average life expectancy.

For many, poor retirement planning, lack of savings, and limited knowledge of financial tools and investment vehicles have compounded the problem.

"Americans tend to prepare for what they can anticipate," said Scott Goldberg, president of Bankers Life.

"Most do not anticipate the amount of debt they will carry into retirement, in addition to other unplanned expenses such as long-term care and various health related costs.  Our studies show us that few Boomers are taking the steps to plan for and overcome these hurdles."

According to the latest CSR report, many middle-income Boomers are expecting to rely on retirement income streams—such as employer pensions or Social Security—that are becoming less common or may be insufficient to sustain a lifestyle they are comfortable with. In addition, only about half (47 percent) feel they have a strong understanding of financial matters.

"The average Boomer has struggled to stay current on what financial planning options are available to them, which magnifies the weight of any financial distress they experience," Goldberg explains.

"Retirement in 2016 looks a lot different than it did just 20 years ago, and there's been a lag in planning as those preparing for retirement try to solve a financial challenge that continues to evolve."

Paying for the New Retirement surveyed 1,001 Americans age 52 to 75 that have an annual household income between $25,000 and $100,000 and less than $1 million in investable assets. The study shed light on the following gaps in retirement planning:

  • Only three in ten retired middle-income Boomers (28 percent) say they were financially prepared when they retired.
  • Although three-quarters (78 percent) of non-retired middle-income Boomers say that they will wait to age 65 to start collecting Social Security benefits, in reality, only about four in ten (38 percent) do. This is despite the fact that delaying one's benefits can lead to increased monthly benefit amounts—approximately an 8% increase for every year one waits up to age 70.
  • Only half are confident in their understanding of annuities (51 percent) and Roth IRAs (48 percent).
The survey also revealed that most middle-income Boomers are concerned about what they largely cannot control, including decisions made by the federal government regarding budgets and spending.

Meanwhile, few are taking proactive steps to address the things they can control. Only 9 percent of those surveyed say they were very prepared for retirement, but 39 percent have not taken any active retirement planning steps.

"It is never too late to improve the outlook for your retirement financial security," Goldberg says.

"Beginning to pay down debt and developing an action plan are critical first steps toward a secure retirement. A financial professional can help you understand the range of tools available and create an informed plan toward your retirement goals." 

About the Center for a Secure Retirement
The Center for a Secure Retirement is the Bankers Life's research and consumer education program. The Center's studies and consumer awareness campaigns provide insight and practical advice to help everyday Americans achieve financial security in retirement.

About Bankers Life
Bankers Life focuses on the insurance needs of middle-income Americans who are near or in retirement. The Bankers Life brand is a part of CNO Financial Group, Inc. (NYSE: CNO), whose companies provide insurance solutions that help protect the health and retirement needs of working Americans and retirees. There are more than 5,000 Bankers Life insurance agents at over 300 offices across the country. To learn more, visit

Friday, July 22, 2016

UW-Milwaukee Arts Students Collaborate with Older Residents to Create and Enjoy Art

Student Artist in Residence program involves some students living in senior residence homes

Newswise, July 22, 2016 — Mari Marks is holding creative coloring sessions at five senior centers. Ian McGibbon helped residents of Eastcastle Place design and create Halloween costumes, and took them on a trip to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Union Gallery. Jackie Kostichka taught Aztec dances to older adults at the Milwaukee Catholic Home – and four residents joined her in a performance.

Marks, McGibbon and Kostichka are part of the Student Artists in Residence program, an unusual partnership that brings students from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) together with older adults to create art. The program is a collaboration between the Peck School of the Arts and the Center for Student-Based Learning, Leadership and Research.

“I’m so happy to be doing this,” Marks said. “It really lets me share my passion and love of art with others. I’ve had some really good discussions [with the seniors] about their perspectives and interests in art. It’s also been great to learn about the communities and the senior centers.”

The most recent Student Artists in Residence project paired eight arts majors with senior residences and programs for nearly a year – from September through July. The program continues in the fall. Students earn a stipend for their efforts.
Marks, who graduated in December with a bachelor’s of fine arts in ceramics and painting, is involved with Interfaith Older Adult Programs, which serves five Milwaukee County senior centers.

Other students are connected with the Milwaukee Catholic Home, Eastcastle Place, Chai Point, St. John’s on the Lake, the Beulah Brinton Community Center, HarborChase, and Aurora Sinai’s Acute Care for the Elderly hospital unit.

“Any time we can bring youthful energy through our front door, it has a positive impact,” said Amy O’Connor, resident life director at the Milwaukee Catholic Home, where dance major Kostichka worked. “The students gain practical experience through the programming as well as build friendships and connections with older residents.”

Although most of the students come to the senior residences and centers to organize programs, Ian McGibbon, a UWM senior studying art and design, lived at Eastcastle Place during the fall semester, and he’s now living at Chai Point.

“It’s been a wonderful, interesting and amazing experience, and I’d like to do it again next year,” he said while playing cribbage with senior residents at a game night he organized.

McGibbon provided Eastcastle Place residents with experiences beyond their standard activities program, said Laura Wengler, Eastcastle’s director of community lifestyle services. “They really enjoyed their visit to the UWM Art Gallery and the Gallery Gab he organized afterward to discuss the art.”

Anne Basting is a professor of theater and facilitator at Creative Trust Milwaukee, which runs the Student Artists in Residence program, with support from Bader Philanthropies. Creative Trust offers arts programming, education and arts events that are intergenerational and collaborative.

Basting said the program is working with the senior facilities to see if similar residency arrangements can be worked out for its next iteration.

“It is social innovation ¬– through the arts ¬– in action,” she said.

Marks, who sells her own creations and also works at Splash Studio, a painting bar in Milwaukee, said she benefitted from her work with the Student Artists in Residence program.

In addition to the coloring workshops, one of her projects with Interfaith was helping organize the Lifetime Arts Competition, a juried show involving older adults in a five-county area.

“I have met with people I otherwise wouldn’t have interacted with,” Marks said, “and I have more experience planning workshops, communicating with many people, organizing events and setting deadlines.”

Friday, July 8, 2016

Effect of Palliative Care-Led Meetings for Families of Patients with Chronic Critical Illness

Effect of Palliative Care Meetings for Family Caregivers
Newswise, July 8, 2016 — Among families of patients with chronic critical illness, the use of palliative care-led informational and emotional support meetings compared with usual care did not reduce anxiety or depression symptoms, according to a study appearing in the July 5 issue of JAMA.

Patients are considered to have developed chronic critical illness when they experience acute illness requiring prolonged mechanical ventilation or other life-sustaining therapies but neither recover nor die within days to weeks.

It is estimated that chronic critical illness affected 380,000 patients in the United States in 2009. Family members of patients in the intensive care unit (ICU) experience emotional distress including anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Palliative care specialists are trained to provide emotional support, share information, and engage patients and surrogate decision makers in discussions of patient values and goals of care.

Shannon S. Carson, M.D., of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Chapel Hill, N.C., Judith E. Nelson, M.D., J.D., of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, and colleagues randomly assigned adult patients requiring 7 days of mechanical ventilation and their family surrogate decision makers to at least 2 structured family meetings led by palliative care specialists and provision of an informational brochure (intervention), or provision of an informational brochure and routine family meetings conducted by ICU teams (control).

There were 130 patients with 184 family surrogate decision makers in the intervention group and 126 patients with 181 family surrogate decision makers in the control group. The study was conducted at 4 medical ICUs.
Among 365 family surrogate decision makers, 312 completed the study. At 3 months, there was no significant difference in anxiety and depression symptoms between surrogate decision makers in the intervention group and the control group.

Posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms were higher in the intervention group compared with the control group. There was no difference between groups regarding the discussion of patient preferences. The median number of hospital days for patients in the intervention vs the control group and 90-day survival were not significantly different.

Potential explanations for this lack of benefit may relate to the high perceptions of quality of communication, emotional support, and family satisfaction in the usual care control.

“When informational support provided by the primary team is sufficient, additional focus on prognosis may not help and could further upset a distressed family, even when emotional support is concurrently provided,” the authors write.

“Alternatively, the intervention may have been insufficient to overcome the high levels of family stress associated with having a relative with chronic critical illness.”

“These findings do not support routine or mandatory palliative care-led discussion of goals of care for all families of patients with chronic critical illness.”

Driving, Dementia – Assessing Safe Driving in High-Risk Older Adults

Assessing Safe Driving in High-Risk Older Adults
Newswise, July 8, 2016 — Driving is possibly one of the most complex procedures humans engage in on a regular basis. Operating a motor vehicle involves a wide range of cognitive processes that require the ability to judge distances, manage multiple stimuli simultaneously, react quickly in an emergency, maintain attention for long periods of time, and correctly interpret traffic signs and signals.

Today, almost half of all drivers on the roadways are over the age of 65 and this number is projected to increase to 77 percent in the next 30 years. Adults over the age of 65 have the highest crash rate per mile compared to any other age group, and older driver fatalities are highest in Florida, California and Texas.

Driving also requires physical skills that are affected by age-related changes like deteriorating vision, decreasing hearing, and diminishing motor reflexes, coordination, and strength as well as effects from medications used for a number of conditions.

Older adult drivers are frequently aware of these physical changes and do take precautions. But what about older adult drivers with declining cognition who can’t make this determination on their own?

With the decline of cognitive processes in older adults due to Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other forms of dementia, there is heightened concern for public safety and unsafe driving in this population.

A researcher in the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing at Florida Atlantic University and a collaborator have just published an article in the journal Public Health Nursing that sheds light on the cognitive factors that inhibit effective driving as well as recognizing older adults who may be at risk for unsafe driving.

“It is important to note that it’s not a person’s chronological age itself that puts the older driver at increased risk for driving accidents, but rather the changes in functionality and skills needed for safe driving,” said Lisa Kirk Wiese, Ph.D., first author and an assistant professor in FAU’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing.

Memory plays a significant role in driving competence. At a basic level, memory provides drivers with the knowledge of how to operate a motor vehicle; turning the key in the ignition, shifting gears, and distinguishing the brake from the gas pedal.

Drivers also need to remember their destination so that they don’t get lost. Studies have shown that there is a 62 percent increase in errors among individuals with AD, most notably in the attention skills of driving straight and in making left-hand turns.

They also have pathological changes in visual processing areas, which significantly impacts visual processing, and consequently, driving performance.

“Drivers with dementia and even their caregivers may lack the insight needed to limit and eventually discontinue driving,” said Wiese.

“They might say something along the lines of ‘I have never had an accident,’ which is then confirmed by their loved one, and both are in denial that they could be an unsafe driver.”

Wiese and co-author Logan Wolff, in the College of Psychology at Nova Southeastern University, note that self-rated methods for older drivers at risk are not effective because they may be overconfident and lack insight into their perceived versus actual driving abilities.

The authors suggest a three-pronged approach to testing for safety in older adult drivers, which include a patient assessment and medication review; a computerized simulation using a touch screen interface, and a road test with a certified road test examiner.

“The task of identifying and helping older adults who are unaware of decline in cognition impacting road safety can be overwhelming for family members, “said Wiese.

“Nurses who care for older adults in public health settings can play a vital role in understanding and identifying the cognitive mechanisms that inhibit effective driving and help to identify older adults who may be at risk for unsafe driving, and who would benefit from a driving evaluation.”
FAU’s Louis and Anne Green Memory and Wellness Center operated by the College of Nursing provides a comprehensive driving evaluation that includes tests of vision, physical functioning and cognitive skills required for safe driving.

In addition, an on-road test in a dual-controlled vehicle is given, which was developed for the purpose of detecting driving errors made by cognitively impaired drivers. At the conclusion of the testing session, results and recommendations are provided, and if needed, options for alternative transportation and supportive services are discussed at length.

“Our driving evaluation program is one of several comprehensive services we provide to individuals with memory disorders and their families,” said María Ordóñez, DNP, ARNP, GNP-BC, director of the Louis and Anne Green Memory and Wellness Center and an assistant professor in FAU’s College of Nursing.

“We are committed to helping our clients function at their personal best to maximize their quality of life and to respond to their unique needs with caring, expertise, and compassion.”

FAU’s College of Nursing is internationally known for its commitment to nursing as a discipline focused on nurturing the wholeness of persons and the environment through Caring. The College advances Caring knowledge through education, practice, research and scholarship to transform care locally, nationally and globally. Currently, the College of Nursing offers bachelor’s, master’s, DNP and Ph.D. degree programs with approximately 1,600 nursing students enrolled in its programs. For more information, visit

Despite Increasing Global Legalization of Physician-Assisted Suicide, Use Remains Rare, Penn Study Finds

Physician-Assisted Suicide Study
Support for Euthanasia or Physician-Assisted Suicide Has Plateaued in the U.S., but Continues to Increase in Western Europe

Newswise, July 8, 2016 – Despite increasing legalization of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide (PAS) worldwide, the practice remains relatively rare and, when carried out, is primarily motivated by psychological factors such as loss of autonomy or enjoyment of life, rather than physical pain.

A new comprehensive assessment of data from around the world shows that in areas where they are legal, only 0.3 to 4.6 percent of deaths result from euthanasia or PAS, with more than 70 percent of cases involving patients with cancer.

The study also shows that the majority of patients requesting euthanasia or PAS are older, white and well-educated. The study, led by Ezekiel J. Emanuel, MD, PhD, chair of the department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at thePerelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, is published today in JAMA.

“There are perceptions that euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are widespread regardless of its legal status, that it’s quick and painless, and flawless. But, the best data we have on these issues is about15 years old,” Emanuel said.

“In the United States, there’s been an increase in legalization since Oregon legalized PAS, and several other states are considering passing legislation that would make these practices legal, but we don’t currently have a comprehensive understanding of the practices themselves, or how the public and health care providers view them. We need more data before turning to these practices as a solution for end-of-life care.”

Euthanasia – where a physician actively and intentionally ends a patient’s life by medical means such as an injection of a neuro-muscular relaxant – and PAS – which occurs when lethal drugs are prescribed or supplied by a physician but are self-administered by the patient – can be legally practiced in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Colombia and Canada. PAS, excluding euthanasia, is legal in Switzerland and five US states: Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont and California.

Using data from 1947-2016 collected from polls, published surveys of the public and physicians, official state and country databases, interviews with physicians, and death certificates, the team sought to determine how legalization affects attitudes and practices of euthanasia and PAS, as well as prevalence and outcomes of the procedures.

Results of the analysis showed that in the U.S., support for euthanasia and PAS increased from 37 percent in 1947 to 53 percent in the early 1970s.

Support continued to increase in the following decades, eventually reaching a plateau in 1990, with roughly 66 percent of the U.S. population supporting one of the practices.

Support in the United States saw a resurgence in the early 2000s, but has declined in recent years, dropping from a peak of 75 percent in 2005 to 64 percent in 2012.

Comparatively, in Europe there has been no plateau of public support for euthanasia and PAS. Between 1999 and 2008, support for euthanasia increased in most Western European countries, while most countries in Central and Eastern Europe saw a decline in support.

The authors say the data suggest there may be a correlation between attitudes toward the practices and religious views.

“In the United States, several characteristics were consistently associated with favoring or opposing the practices. In general, people who were supportive were white, male, younger, and religiously unaffiliated,” Emanuel said.

“We also noticed a similar trend in Europe, where support in Western Europe increased as rates of religiosity decreased, while simultaneously, support in the post-communist Eastern European countries decreased as religiosity increased.

Investigators also examined the implications of legalizing euthanasia and PAS. Specifically, the team sought to determine the circumstances under which patients most frequently request euthanasia or PAS, the prevalence of complications, and the likelihood that where legal, the procedures would become standard practice rather than being used only in extreme cases.

Analysis revealed that in U.S. jurisdictions where the practices are legal, less than 20 percent of physicians report receiving requests for euthanasia or PSA, and less than five percent have complied. In Oregon and Washington state, less than one percent of licensed physicians write prescriptions for PAS, and in the vast majority of cases, patients are already or had previously received hospice care.

Belgium and the Netherlands also report a positive association between euthanasia and receiving or consulting with palliative care teams or pain specialists.

Of note, the authors found no data on complication rates from any country other than the United States and the Netherlands. And in those cases, reports were largely incomplete.

For example, between 1998 and 2015, more than 40 percent of PAS cases in Oregon were missing complication data. Of the data that was available from Oregon and Washington state, complications reported included prolonged death (those taking longer than one day), regurgitation of medication, and seizures.

“What data we have strongly suggests that the dominant motivations for requesting euthanasia or PAS are loss of autonomy and dignity, the inability to enjoy life and regular activities, or other mental illnesses, rather than physical pain,” Emanuel said.

“However, given the incomplete and outdated information available about the practices of assisted dying, collecting reliable data to evaluate end-of-life practices should be prioritized around the world, not just in countries legalizing euthanasia or PAS.”

The authors suggest future studies should examine three areas: the true frequency of PAS cases and how the outcomes of reported versus unreported cases differ, rates of requests and practices of euthanasia and PAS, and complications, including how many patients wake up after ingesting the prescribed medications.

In countries where the practices are legal, the authors say more rigorous retrospective research is needed to determine reasons for the requests, complications, and familial and social situations of the deceased.

More States Weigh Action to Help People Save for Retirement

© The Pew Charitable Trusts

State Weigh Actions to Help People Save for Retirement
July 8, 2016. — Malcolm Reid and Stewart Nelson-Reid, both 58, have been together for 18 years. They’ve had a blast — traveling, skydiving and riding roller coasters around the country.

What they haven’t done is save much money for retirement. For years Malcolm Reid, a manager at AT&T, contributed only a small amount to his 401(k). His spouse, a freelance makeup artist, has no retirement fund.

“I don’t know what we were thinking,” Reid said. “We were spending money like crazy. We traveled. We bought clothes. We ran up credit card debt. Now, we’re watching every penny.”

They aren’t alone: A recent federal report found about 55 percent of households with workers between 55 and 64 have less than $25,000 in retirement savings. Malcolm Reid has saved a bit more than that — $38,000 — but far less than what he’d need to support himself during a retirement that might last decades.

For many Americans, a major barrier to saving more is that their employers don’t offer a retirement plan. Between 2010 and 2014, 42 percent of full-time, private sector workers between 18 and 64 — about 30 million people — did not have access to an employer-sponsored plan, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts (Pew also funds Stateline).

To fill the gap, since 2012 at least 31 states have considered setting up state-sponsored retirement savings plans for private sector workers, according to Pew. This year, legislators in more than a dozen states introduced bills. 

Eight states have approved state-sponsored retirement programs for private-sector workers, but so far only one, in Massachusetts, is operating. The Massachusetts treasurer handles contributions and investments for the voluntary program, which is only for small nonprofits.

Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland and Oregon have approved mandatory programs in which a small percentage would be automatically deducted from an employee’s paycheck and put in an IRA in a financial institution, although the person could opt out. 

Employers would play a minimal role, providing information about the program to workers and sending payroll deductions to the state, but not offering financial advice or assistance. None of the programs require employers to match employee contributions.

Under Maryland’s program, employers that don’t enroll their employees must pay a standard $300 filing fee. But there is no penalty for failing to participate in the program.

New Jersey and Washington state have adopted a “marketplace” model, in which the states would create an online exchange and set basic standards for eligible retirement plans.

The states would rely on the existing private market to provide the plans, as well as help educate small businesses about their options and encourage them to offer one to employees. Participation would be voluntary for small businesses and employees.

In Illinois, which hopes to launch its program in June 2017, businesses with at least 25 employees that don’t offer retirement plans would be required to participate. Employees would be enrolled unless they opt out, and 3 percent of their wages would be placed in a Roth IRA, although they could change the percentage.

“Workers who lack access to retirement savings options need and deserve help. The number of families and workers who are in trouble is just terrifying,” said Democratic state Sen. Daniel Biss, who sponsored the measure, which passed in 2014 on a party-line vote, with only one Republican voting in favor.
AARP, one of the biggest boosters of state-sponsored retirement funds, says auto-enroll programs like the one in Illinois will best help retirees become more financially secure.

“Social Security is not enough. People need that private savings,” said Gerri Madrid-Davis, AARP’s state advocacy director. The average monthly Social Security retirement benefit as of January was $1,341.

Boomers in Trouble

Baby boomers, Americans between the ages of 52 and 70, are in especially dire straits. More than four in 10 will not have enough income to support themselves when they call it quits, according to a report by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Many companies no longer offer pensions, as they did when boomers’ parents were in the workforce. Nearly 30 percent of households age 55 and older have no money saved in a 401(k), IRA or pension.

And some boomers who did try hard to save dipped into or drained their retirement accounts to buy or repair their house or pay medical bills or college tuition; some lost jobs during the recession. 

“A tremendous number of people aren’t ready,” said Jack VanDerhei of EBRI. “It’s a serious problem.”

The AARP’s Madrid-Davis said younger Americans will benefit most from the state efforts to set up retirement savings programs because they’ll have more time to accumulate savings. 

But the programs would help boomers, too. Many are expected to work well past traditional retirement age. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2024 nearly 22 percent of those 65 and older will be in the labor force, compared to 12 percent in 1994.

“These programs are hugely important to boomers,” Madrid-Davis said. “Most of them don’t have pensions like people used to and a good number have nothing saved for retirement.”

She said AARP prefers that states create auto-enroll programs because many employees forced to put a small percentage of their savings into a retirement account won’t bother to opt out. “It’s trying to get inertia to work in people’s favor,” she said.

And the programs would save tax dollars down the road, Madrid-Davis said.

“The states know at the end of the day, if you have a large number of retirees who don’t have the financial resources, they’ll need support with health care, housing and food that generally comes from local and state government. Ultimately, the states will be the ones footing the bill.”

An Unlevel Playing Field?

The financial services industry and some groups representing small businesses, such as the National Federation of Independent Business, have opposed much of the legislation to create mandatory auto-enroll retirement savings programs.

Many of these critics say they support efforts to educate workers about saving for retirement, but they don’t think states should force employers to offer plans. Some say it will create administrative and regulatory burdens on small businesses.

John Mangan, a regional vice president for the American Council of Life Insurers, which represents financial companies that offer 401(k)s and annuities, said employers already have access to a “vibrant market” if they want to offer retirement plans. 

“They can work and will work for employers who have the time and energy to get a plan in place,” he said.

Mangan said mandatory auto-enroll programs would create an unlevel playing field, especially if they are exempt from the federal Employment Retirement Income Security Act, which sets out strict rules and standards for private-sector employers and retirement plans and provides financial protections for workers. 

That would mean plans that are part of the state-sponsored program wouldn’t be subject to the same requirements as other employer-sponsored plans.

“We’re not afraid of fair competition. We face that every day,” Mangan said. “Our concern is that states are proposing to operate a plan under different rules than we operate our plans under.”

Mangan said his group prefers the marketplace model adopted in Washington state. 

“It’s completely voluntary for employers and taps into an existing private marketplace,” he said. “It attempts to connect private providers to small employers who need a plan and might not know where to turn.”

In California, the state Chamber of Commerce is opposed to a mandatory auto-enroll bill under consideration, unless it is amended. The measure was approved by the Senate last month and is awaiting action in an Assembly committee.

Marti Fisher, a chamber lobbyist, said her group is worried that employers won’t be protected from liability.

“A small-businessperson may inadvertently make mistakes in the way they administer their responsibilities under the plan or the way they interact with employees and then they could be liable for any losses or problems that occur,” she said.

Fisher said her group also is concerned about the program’s costs. A recent analysis estimated California would need to borrow $134 million from its general fund for a startup loan. The loan would then be repaid using a trust fund supported by employee contributions.

“We think the cost to develop the infrastructure to administer this brand spanking new program is going to be fairly large,” Fisher said. Employees may wind up being “very disappointed in their returns,” she added, because the startup and administrative costs would come out of their investment funds.

Some critics of auto-enroll programs question how much employees will be able to save, if just a small percentage of their paycheck goes into an IRA. Research has shown that a 3 percent automatic contribution would have only a modest impact on their long-term savings.

But the AARP’s Madrid-Davis said any savings is better than none, and some programs allow for an automatic hike in employee contribution rates over time, which would help nest eggs grow.

“You can really build a great state program,” Madrid-Davis said. “And if you build it, they will come.”