Information & Referral: Your First Stop for Elder Services

May 2014 | Leland Kiang, LICSW

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Seeking senior and long-term care services for oneself or a loved one can be challenging.  Myths and misconceptions abound.  Many Americans, according to AARP, wrongly believe that Medicare will pay for long-term care.  Two-thirds of Americans, according to a MetLife study, lack knowledge about available programs; and most Americans, according to another AARP study, inaccurately estimate the cost of care.

Adding to the public’s confusion is the plethora of programs and services nationwide.  To learn about government services, older adults and caregivers frequently must contact more than one government entity.  Certain government programs, like Medicaid and SNAP (also known as Food Stamps), allow for considerable state variance in coverage, eligibility, and application process—meaning that how one of these programs appears in New Hampshire may be markedly different than how it appears in Mississippi.  Even more variety exists with non-government programs.  While some states and counties have many program providers, others have relatively few.  For-profit and nonprofit providers differ in whom they serve, how much they cost, whether subsidies are available, and what type of care they provide.  Given all these choices, where does one start?

A good place to start is with an Information & Referral (I&R) professional.  (See below for a list of how to find an I&R professional).  Like the resource librarians of old, I&R professionals show their callers where and how to find the information they seek.  Depending on his/her specialty, an I&R professional may help an older adult find a ride to their doctor, refer a caregiver to legal aid, educate an elder about the difference between Medicare and Medicaid, or direct a loved one to articles on caregiving.

While I&R professionals often give out phone numbers, I&R is not directory assistance.  I&R professionals often receive training in ethics, assessment, cultural competency and diversity, and crisis management.  Many I&R professionals are college educated social workers or counselors.  Others obtain national certification from the Alliance of Information & Referral Systems (AIRS).  Their education and training prepares them to help callers identify and prioritize their needs, weigh multiple options, consider culturally-sensitive solutions, and—where an exact fit of services may not be available—help explore nontraditional alternatives.  Whether social workers, counselors, or nationally certified I&R specialists, most I&R professionals also engage in continuing education to stay up-to-date on available services as well as counseling skills. 

With their knowledge of local and/or national programs, I&R professionals offer a wealth of (largely) free information to LGBT elders and caregivers.  However, callers should not see I&R as a quick fix, but rather as a place to start.  While a call to I&R may yield a phone number to a potential solution, it also could lead to referrals to a more specialized I&R service or another eldercare professional.  Callers also should not expect I&R professionals to recommend a particular provider.  According to AIRS, I&R professionals empower callers to make their own decisions about what services are right for them.  Whenever possible, AIRS advises I&R professionals to offer more than one referral.  Those who need additional assistance vetting a provider or setting up services may turn to other professionals like care managers or advocates. 

Where does one find an I&R professional?  I&R professionals work for both government agencies and nonprofits.  Some I&R programs aim to educate callers about nationally available services.  Others focus locally.  Some have broad knowledge about a myriad of topics.  Others offer more detailed information on a smaller range of subjects.  Below, is a list of some of the major Information & Referral programs, and their areas of expertise.

211.  Local affiliates provide information and referral on a wide range of local services.

Aging Fraud Hotline (1-855-303-9470).  The federal helpline, of the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging, helps older adult victims of fraud.

Aging Multilingual Helpline.  The helpline, of the nonprofit National Asian & Pacific Center on Aging, answers questions on eldercare services in Chinese (1-800-582-4218), Korean (1-800-582-4259), Vietnamese (1-800-582-4336), and English (1-800-336-2722).

Aids Info (1-800-HIV-0440). The federal helpline, of the National Institutes of Health, answer questions about HIV treatment and clinical trials.

Alzheimer’s Association Helpline (1-800-272-3900).  The nonprofit’s helpline answers questions about Alzheimer’s, other dementia-causing diseases, and supportive services.

Breast Care Helpline (1-877-GO-KOMEN).  The helpline, of the nonprofit Susan G. Komen, answers questions about breast cancer and breast health.

Eldercare Locator (1-800-677-1116).  The federal helpline, of the Administration on Aging, answers questions about eldercare services nationwide.

Military One Source (1-800-342-9647).  The federal helpline, of the Department of Defense, provides information and referral services to active duty military and their families on a multitude of topics. 

National Alliance on Mental Illness Information Helpline (1-800-950-NAMI).  The nonprofit’s helpline answers questions about mental illness and supportive services.

National Cancer Information Center (1-800-227-2345).  The nonprofit helpline, of the American Cancer Society, answers questions about the disease and supportive services.

National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE).  The nonprofit’s helpline answers questions about the topic and supportive services.

National Hispanic Family Health Helpline (1-866-SU-FAMILIA).  The nonprofit’s helpline answers questions (in Spanish and English) on health and the healthcare system.

Parkinson’s Disease Foundation’s National Helpline (1-800-457-6676).  The nonprofit’s helpline answers questions about the disease and supportive services.

SAMHSA (Substance Abuse) National Helpline (1-800-662-HELP). The federal helpline, of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, answers questions about substance abuse treatment, mental health, and supportive services.

Stroke Helpline (1-800-STROKES).  The helpline, of the nonprofit National Stroke Association, answers questions about the disease and supportive services.

Veterans Affairs Caregiver Support Line (1-855-260-3274).  The federal helpline, of the Department of Veterans Affairs, answers questions about veteran services.


Leland Kiang, LICSW is manager of Iona Senior Services’ Information & Referral in Washington DC.  Iona’s program (202-895-9448) answers questions about elder-related human services in the DC metropolitan area.