Thursday, October 23, 2014

The 1.7 Percent Solution

      The government announced yesterday that our Social Security benefit for next year will increase by 1.7 percent, reflecting the 1.7 rise in the Consumer Price Index through September of this year. The average benefit will go up by a little more than $20 a month, which will barely cover average increases in Medicare and allied medical insurance. 

     Inflation of 1.7%? Who are they trying to kid? Have you shopped in a grocery store lately? Everything has gone up and the packages are getting smaller. Meanwhile, have you checked on the increases in college tuition? Or seen how healthcare prices have gone up? What about property taxes? Don't believe these fake government inflation reports. Inflation for seniors is closer to 10 percent if you look at the real world.

     Does the general rate of inflation truly reflect the real lives of senior citizens? One reason the CPI is so low is because of the decrease in gasoline prices. By definition, retired people no longer commute, so we don't use as much gasoline, and don't benefit from the lower cost of fuel. But we do travel. We do heat our homes. Then, how do you factor in the cost of food and health care? The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare touts a different way to determine increases in Social Security. It recommends using a measure called CPI-E, rather than the CPI, arguing that the CPI-E more closely resembles the inflation measure for people over 62. On average, the CPI-E runs 0.2 percent higher than the general CPI. That would mean, instead of getting $20 more, you'd get about $22. A small amount. But it would add up over the years.

     But where would we get the money? And are seniors getting greedy?

     A lot of retirees don't understand that they didn't contribute nearly as much into Social Security as they are taking out, assuming they live a normal life span. Social Security was never meant to be your sole source of support, but it was supposed to help those who didn't have a pension or could never save enough to get by. But today's recipients are receiving more than they put in, while younger generations are getting screwed. Remember, people who are currently working and paying into Social Security are not getting much in the way of raises either. To a lot of people a 1.7 percent increase doesn't seem bad. Many workers have not had any raise at all for two or three years.

     It's true that Social Security was designed as a supplemental program -- not to replace all your income, but to put a floor on your income. And it has worked. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, the poverty rate for people over age 65 clocks in at 9.5 percent, compared to 14.5 percent among the population as a whole, never mind the poverty rate for single mothers or inner city minorities. The poverty rate for children is 19.9 percent. Do we really want to take money away from poor children in order to send more to middle-class seniors? Do we want to increase the payroll tax on our kids, who don't even believe they'll get the same benefits that we do out of Social Security? 

     A statement like, "I can't get by on Social Security" is ridiculous because the program was never meant to be the primary source of income during your retirement years. It's a safety net, no more than that. That's why you save for retirement starting early in our career using 401Ks and IRAs. Look, the choices are clear:  Save systematically, lead a frugal life, always spend less than you make, and this will allow you to maintain your lifestyle in your sunset years. If you're depending on Social Security alone, then plan to downsize your lifestyle drastically. The choice is yours.

     But then the government hits us when we're down. Because inflation is so low, and the government is still trying to pump up the economy five years after the recession ended, interest rates are close to zero. Those of us who scrimped and saved and built up a reasonable nest egg to supplement Social Security (like they told us to), get nothing from our investments -- not if we try to keep them safe by putting them in the bank (at less than 1 percent interest) or keep them in "safe" government or corporate bonds (at 2 percent interest). Yes, we can invest in the stock market. But that puts our nest eggs at risk. If the market tanks like it did in 2008 or 2001, then we'll be the ones who have to downsize our lifestyles drastically. 

     Everyone knows that it's not low inflation (which is anything but low) but negative real interest rates that steal from savers to support the stock portfolios of the 1 percent. If not for the government bailouts and the artificially low rates, would the price of gas, food, medicine, tuition, and stocks go up? No, everything would be much more affordable. Who would benefit? Everyone who is a consumer and not an investor -- including most seniors. Who would lose? The 1 percent. But so what? They lose a little, but would still be left with their millions.

     So where do we stand? Well, we have Social Security (even though it could be more); we have our IRAs (which are doing pretty well, at least for now); and most of us (80 percent) own a house that's worth less than it was a few years ago, but is still a pretty decent asset ... and also keeps us warm and dry all night long.

     Here's the way I see it. Lots of anxieties. Lots to complain about. But overall, we've got it pretty good, don't you think?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

What's the Risk?

     I will admit that I don't like to fly. I don't like the airport experience. I don't like being cooped up in that narrow, cylindrical aluminum tube. I don't like being 30,000 feet up in the sky with only a cushion of air holding me up. And I sure don't like sitting in the middle seat.

     The analytical, left side of my brain knows that flying in an airplane is safe. But the more impressionable right side of my brain imagines how sometimes, very quickly, things can go wrong.

     Things can go wrong in a car. But I can get out and walk. Things can go wrong in a boat, but I can swim. But in an airplane . . .

     So now people are saying they are reluctant to board an airplane because of Ebola. You never know if one of the passengers has been to West Africa or is a health worker who has treated someone with the disease. They may not show any symptoms, but they could still be carrying the virus.

     But what are the chances of getting Ebola? About the same, I read recently, as getting hit by lighting while picking up your multimillion-dollar winnings from the lottery.

     Exactly one person has died of Ebola so far in this country. But every year over 50,000 people die of flu and pneumonia. And of course, like most things, these diseases hit older people a lot harder than they hit young people, proving infinitely more deadly. (So get your flu shot!)

     Recently, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) published its latest list of most common ways to die in this country. The list doesn't change much from year to year, or even decade to decade. Heart disease is still No. 1. Cancer is No. 2.

     We have made some progress on cancer -- as much because people have given up smoking as because of medical advances. But medical treatment has definitely improved the survival rate for breast cancer, colon cancer, and skin cancer -- especially if they're caught early. (So get your breast exam, your colonoscopy and your skin screening!)

     But we know the risks that are familiar never seem as threatening or scary as those that are new or unusual or dramatic. I'm scared of stepping onto an airplane, which if you average it out kills about 140 Americans a year. But I'm not afraid to get in the car and drive to the grocery store, when over 30,000 Americans are killed on the road every year.

     Although I have to amend the statement. Sometimes I have a crisis of confidence when I'm out on the highway, and all around me people are speeding, tailgating, changing lanes without signaling, etc., etc. etc. Sometimes I'm amazed that the death rate on the roads isn't higher than it already is!

     In fact, while overall, accidents are the fifth leading cause of death in America, killing over 120,000 people a year, auto accidents do not kill as many people as accidental poisonings. The top three in 2011, according to the CDC:

                Accidental falls:  27,483
                Auto accidents:  33,783
                Accidental poisonings:  36,280

     But the poisoning figures are so high because they include drug overdoses -- and according to the CDC those numbers have gone up in recent years largely due to prescription pain medications. Heroin overdoses mainly affect younger people. But older people are definitely at risk when it comes to pain medications. (So dispose of those old prescriptions in a proper manner!)

     I don't know. After reviewing all these figures, now I'm scared to get out of my chair. What's the death rate for people sitting in front of their computer?


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Filling the Bucket List

     As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, Rebecca Mead at The New Yorker recently took a jaundiced look at the concept of The Bucket List, occasioned by a stopover that President Obama made at Stonehenge on his last trip to England. Obama looked over the monolith, then quipped that he'd "knocked it off the bucket list," before hopping back on Air Force One to jet back to Washington.

     I myself have not made a Bucket List. The idea seems a little ghoulish to me. But last year B brought home a book called The 100 Best Vacations to Enrich Your Life by Pam Grout. The two of us leafed through the book, but to be honest, we didn't both choose a lot of the same experiences.

     So, for example, she wants to "Take a Gourmet Raft Trip Down the Rio Grande" (p. 262); while I thought it might be fun to "Protect Loggerhead Sea Turtles" (p. 134) at the Wassaw National Wildlife Reserve in Georgia. (The book is a few years old, so you have to google the listings to make sure the information is up-to-date.)

     However, we were both intrigued by one suggestion. And that's how we ended up going to "Sit at the Feet of the Masters" (p. 172) at the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, NY, this past summer.

     I don't know what we'll do next. I'd like to "Tour History in a Covered Wagon" (p. 207) on an Oregon Trail wagon train. But she found a candidate for a different kind of whistlestop: "Tour the Canadian Maritimes Aboard a Luxury Train" (p. 177).

     Meantime, I'm beginning to plan my annual search to find a bit of sunshine in January, and so I started researching some other options on Road Scholar. You see, I have a problem. I've been going to Florida for three weeks every year since I left work in 2002. The problem is:  B is still working, which cuts into our vacation time dramatically. And also . . . B hates Florida. She thinks it's too crowded and too cold.

     The one time I got her to go with me, a week in Naples, there was a cold snap. We only got to the beach one day, and even then I will admit it was chilly, and the rest of the time we needed at least a windbreaker, if not more.

     "But isn't it better to have 60 degrees in Florida, instead of 20 degrees at home?" I asked.

     "Not if I'm still cold," she replied.

     So anyway, this year as usual, I'll be going to Florida by myself. I spend a couple of days with my sister, who lives in Jacksonville. And then, let's see. There's a Road Scholar tour of historic St. Augustine, Florida, and another that offers a journey through the Everglades. I've never been on a Road Scholar excursion, so I don't know what to expect.

     I'll be by myself. Will everybody else be a couple? I'm in my 60s. Will everyone else be ten years older than I am? I like to do things, not walk around and look at things. Will I be spending too many hours riding on a bus and walking around a museum? Will I be required to stay with a group that eats dinner at 5:15 p.m. and gets shepherded around all day like a bunch of sheep?

     I guess those are the questions anyone asks when they try something new. So now I'm sure you understand . . . it would make things a lot easier if B wasn't still tied down to a job. (And if she liked Florida.)

     But anyway, in other respects we are beginning to focus in on some of the same things. We both are interested in "Reaching for the Stars" (p. 170) at the University of Arizona's Astronomy Camp. Maybe next year. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

How Do You Talk to Your Children?

    B has dutiful children. Her two sons call her on the phone about once a week. Her older son lives some 60 miles away, in his own apartment, and he will call when he gets home from work if he's not doing anything with his girlfriend. We also see him once or twice a month. In fact, we drove down to have dinner with him and his girlfriend over the weekend.

     Her younger son lives more like 800 miles away, in South Carolina with his fiancee. He also calls his mom once a week, usually on his way home from work -- yes, he has a hands-free phone -- although we obviously don't get to see him as much. He was home for a long weekend last Christmas; and B flew down to see him over the summer. He and his fiancee are planning another trip home around Thanksgiving.

     So that's how B talks to her children, mostly by voice, over the phone, and occasionally in person. Kind of the old-fashioned way. In fact, she was thrilled when she found out her older son did something almost unheard of among the 20-something crowd -- he installed a land-line telephone in his new apartment!

     Maybe the way you communicate with your children changes once you have grandchildren. But for us, we're not there yet. And I wonder if we're at all typical; or if we're missing out somehow.

     As for my daughter, she will not pick up the phone. She simply does not use the phone for voice communication. She communicates by messaging. If I call her, she never answers. If I leave her a voice-mail message, she will not respond. And she never calls me. But she will message me; and she will respond to a message. That's just the way she communicates, and I've found that I just had to adapt.

     My daughter lives almost 400 miles away. We see her a couple of times a year -- largely (I think) because despite the fact that she's crossed the 30-year-old threshold, she's still living an itinerant lifestyle and is storing most of her worldly possessions in our basement. She stops off a couple of times a year to drop something off, or pick something up. Although this past weekend I met up with a friend of hers whose family lives near us, and the friend was home for the long Columbus Day weekend. We met at the mall, and I gave her my daughter's snowboard, and some winter clothes, to take up to her. That's how I "communicated" with my daughter this past weekend.

     But honestly, my daughter is better at visiting me than I am at visiting her. But she's living in Buffalo -- which means the visiting season is short. We drove up there in August, which was my first-ever visit to Buffalo and Niagara Falls, and I did enjoy the trip. But I won't be venturing up there again until after the snow stops flying -- sometime after mid-May.

     My son, who lives in New York City, will not answer the phone either. But he uses aol instant message at work. I can never reach him on a weekend. But during the week when he's at work, he's on AIM, and he almost always answers me. That's good, because I feel like he's available pretty much whenever I want to talk to him (you know, as long as it's not a weekend).

     My son occasionally comes to visit -- usually when he travels home to see a friend -- and he'll often stay with us overnight. But even then he doesn't really talk to me. The exception -- when I drive him back to the train station. Do you remember those days, when your kids were young, and the best time to talk to them was when you were alone in the car, driving them to soccer practice or piano lessons?

     Well, for me, it's still true. The car is dark; you don't have to look at the other person. There are no distractions; and you can't walk away. The perfect time and place to find out what's really going on in your kid's life.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Short Takes for October

      In my Sept. 28 post What Are Boomers Blogging About? fellow blogger Meryl Baer reported on her visit to the Flight #93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pa. Sadly, USA Today and several other news outlets have reported that there was a fire at the memorial on Oct. 3. The fire destroyed the flag that flew over the U. S. Capitol on 9/11, as well as a number of other artifacts. The cause of the fire is unknown, but no foul play is suspected -- it was possibly a result of some construction going on at the site.

     Meanwhile, a lot of people were interested in my two posts on the subject of long-term care insurance -- as well as the more authoritative one Is Long-Term Care Insurance for You? brought to us from financial adviser Jeremy Kisner. As a follow-up, if you're interested, here's another pretty clear and thorough look at the issue of long-term care insurance from Rodney Brooks at USA Today.

     I'm not saying LTC insurance is for everyone -- but just maybe it's something to put on your Bucket List.

     And speaking of the Bucket List, Rebecca Mead takes a jaundiced view of the whole concept of The Bucket List in an article in The New Yorker. Her piece was prompted by President Obama's recent hour-long side trip to Stonehenge as he casually quipped that he'd "knocked it off the bucket list" -- before jetting back to Washington an hour behind his official schedule.

     I myself have not made a Bucket List. And my travels have been closer to home -- to Buffalo, NY, and Cape Cod, Mass. But I'm at a loss right this moment. We have no vacation planned. None at all. And that makes me feel anxious. Aren't we retired people supposed to be traveling all the time? One problem: B is still working, which cuts into our vacation time dramatically.

     And so for now we're both staying home, trying to stay warm (we dipped down to 41 degrees last night) and focusing on our health by getting our flu shots and scheduling annual physical exams.

     It distressed me to learn that Medicare will pay for an annual exam -- but only with a physician's assistant, not with a doctor. If I want to see my primary care physician, I will have to pay $185. To me it's worth it. He knows my history; he knows my usual aches and pains vs. something that might be unusual, atypical or possibly serious. But I thought Medicare was supposed to focus on prevention, since prevention costs a lot less than tests and treatments and follow-up visits.

     Oh well, Medicare is saving me a lot more than $185 compared to my previous medical insurance plan, so I guess I don't mind paying. Besides, Medicare did pay for my flu shot.

     Finally, in case you do not want to follow Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel's advice to die at age 75, here are two health notes:  

     1. Artificial sweeteners make you fat. Several previous studies have suggested that artificial sweeteners can give people a "sweet tooth," making them more likely to seek out sugary foods. But a new study from Israel suggests that the artificial sweeteners might have a direct effect on the body's metabolism to make weight gain more likely.

     The Israeli researchers studied the use of saccharin and aspartame in a group of mice, and they found the artificial sweeteners raised the level of blood sugar in the animals and increased their glucose intolerance -- which can in turn lead to obesity and diabetes. The researchers then gave saccharin to an admittedly small group of volunteers (only seven people) and four of them developed glucose intolerance, suggesting that the effect of artificial sweeteners shown in mice could also show up in humans. So if you want to stay thin and healthy . . . no Diet Coke for you!

     2. Standing up is good for you. A group of Swedish scientists took blood samples from a group of sedentary, overweight men and women, all over age 68. The researchers measured the length of the subjects' telemeres -- the ends of DNA that typically shorten and fray with age. Half the volunteers then started a moderate exercise program, which included less time sitting down, while the other group just continued with their normal lives.

     Six months later the Swedish researchers found that the telemeres of the normal group had shortened, as expected. But those of the exercise group had actually grown longer -- their telemeres had become younger. The surprise:  the telemeres of the volunteers who had done the most exercise grew less than the others, and in some cases not at all.

     So the most beneficial factor in lengthening the telemeres was not exercise, but simply time spent standing up. Or conversely, the less time people spent sitting down, the more their telemeres grew, and the healthier they were. The conclusion:  Exercise is good. Standing up is even better.

     Finally, on a happier note (I think): I saw my first Christmas ad the other day, for the holiday extravaganza at Radio City in New York. I know, the ads for Christmas seem to show up earlier and earlier every year. But Christmas is the happiest time of year, isn't it?