"To be happy in this world you have to ignore some things." -- Alan Drew, "Shadow Man"

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Alone

      I'm alone for the weekend. My wife has gone to meet up with her two sisters. She'll be back on Tuesday night.

     According to an ad from Meals on Wheels, "Social isolation is as deadly as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day." I don't know where they get that information. But I think it's probably true -- for some people, not for others.

     I have a sister who was single for about 25 years, between marriages. She lived by herself. But she had a job and several good friends and belonged to a couple of clubs, and so she wasn't socially isolated. 

     I have a brother-in-law who's been single most of his life -- he had one brief marriage back in the 1990s. I've never known him to have a lot of friends; but he is close to his siblings, and he never hesitates to travel alone. He seems comfortable with the situation. 

     Myself, I am not an alone person. I don't do well as a single. I just don't like my own company that much.

     I've never really lived alone. I grew up in a family of six. Had several roommates in college, and a roommate when I moved to New York City. Then I got married. After we got divorced I did kind of live by myself for a while. But my son was still in high school, and we had joint custody, so he slept at my house three nights a week. And when my daughter was home from college, she often stayed with me.

     By the time my son went to college I had developed a relationship with B, my current wife. Technically, I slept home alone most nights, but in fact we were together a lot of the time. I was not lonely. Then we moved into together and eventually got married.

     Last December my wife went away for a month to visit her two grandchildren in South Carolina. I was invited. But it was the height of Covid, and I elected not to travel.

     So I was home alone for Christmas and New Year's. I set up my own small Christmas tree. I put lights out in front of the house. I forget what I had for Christmas dinner. It was probably a Lean Cuisine from the microwave.

     But I didn't feel isolated, because B and I Zoomed or Facetimed pretty much every night while she was gone. I didn't really have much opportunity to sit around and feel sorry for myself.

     And that, for me, is the problem about being alone for too long. I start thinking negative thoughts, going over the regrets in my life. Why did I break up with my girlfriend freshman year in college? That was a stupid thing to do! Why didn't I become a lawyer? I could have. I would have made more money -- maybe had a more interesting job, too, you never know. Why did I get married so young? Didn't work out in the end. The divorce was good for me. But what did it do to the kids?

     That's why I don't like to spend time alone.

     Well, that's not entirely true. Before Covid, I would always go to Florida in the winter -- for a week or two while I was still working, longer after I retired. After I met B, I'd always invite her along, but she only came with me one time. She doesn't like Florida.

     So any number of times I was by myself, at least for a little while. It was fun. I could do what I wanted, keep my own schedule. I'd eat junk food, including dessert. Play music that nobody else wanted to hear. Oldies like Simon & Garfunkel, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, even some Doo Wop.

     But it never took long for me to start feeling lonely. I once went to Disney World by myself. I felt kind of stupid. Many times I sat by myself in a restaurant, amid a crowd of people, and felt socially isolated.

     Fortunately, I now know this about myself. So when I go to Florida I make arrangements to meet up for a day or two with my sister who lives in Jacksonville. And after my Florida sojourn, I reconnect with my wife and family in Charleston, SC. We settle down into our rental near the kids and grandkids, and suddenly I'm surrounded by loved ones -- and my alone time is over. Social isolation, no more.

     B and I are going to Charleston again this winter. We feel Covid is now less of a threat. But because of Covid, I am not taking my extra trip to Florida. That's okay. I've got these next three days to myself. I can do it.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Ghosts of Thanksgiving Past

      After Thanksgiving dinner was safely tucked under our belts -- standard fare of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, peas, cranberry sauce -- we joined our family on Zoom and started reminiscing about Thanksgivings past. Most of the memories were fond ones -- of mini-vacations, family get-togethers, convivial dinners and good food. 

     I recalled one Thanksgiving, back in the 1970s, when my wife and I were vacationing with a few friends. Nobody wanted to cook, but being in our 20s we didn't plan ahead, so we couldn't get a table at a restaurant . . . that is, until we found a Chinese place tucked into the back of a mini-mall. We walked into an empty room, with 20 or so empty tables, and proceeded to enjoy a great meal with great service. The cuisine seemed a little out-of-place for the occasion -- I had the pu pu platter -- but we all had a wonderful time laughing and joking about our sudden and unexpected cultural adventure.

     My sister remembered with a laugh the frozen string beans our mother used to overcook. I recalled the cranberry sauce plopped straight out of the can -- and the sweet potato casserole drenched in sauce and decorated with little marshmallows.

     "Speaking of marshmallows," my wife said, "did you guys ever have Jello with fruit in it? We used Mandarin oranges. with marshmallows and sometimes sour cream on top."

     "Oh, we had that stuff," said my daughter. "It was terrible. I also remember the turnips and mashed potatoes." She wrinkled her nose. "Mom used to mix the turnips in with the mashed potatoes -- thus completely ruining the mashed potatoes!"

     But then my son recalled how he loved to sit around in his pajamas on Thanksgiving day, watching the Macy's parade and helping his mom tear apart the bread and prepare the stuffing -- and how great it tasted after it came out of the turkey.

     "Yeah," my daughter added. "And I loved drowning everything in gravy. Mom made really good gravy."

     Then my other sister recalled, "Well, our mother wasn't much of a cook. But in her defense, she made a great leg of lamb -- not for Thanksgiving, but usually for Christmas."

     I remembered the leg of lamb. I don't even like lamb anymore, but I did back in those days. I liked the lamb and the roasted potatoes and all the other trimmings -- and just the fun and the warm feelings you get sitting around the table with eight or ten or twelve family members.

     "And remember Mom's hard sauce?" my sister added. "How did she make that? I think it was basically butter and sugar. It might've had a taste of vanilla and maybe some nutmeg."

     "And a drop of rum," I added. "Don't forget the rum! But . . . what did we put it on?"

     "Pecan pie," she said.

     "No, pumpkin pie," I corrected. 

     "Maybe fruitcake," added my other sister.

     "Oh, God, not fruitcake . . . spare me the fruitcake . . . "

     And thus it went. Another Thanksgiving full of family fun and fond memories. And now it's on to Christmas . . . 

Sunday, November 21, 2021

You Don't Have to Be Rich to Enjoy Retirement

     When we're in our 50s and 60s, before retirement, we tend to think retirement is all about money -- saving up in our IRA or 401K, watching our pension grow, figuring out our Social Security strategy. But one thing I've learned in doing this blog is that retirement is not primarily about money.

     Most people will have enough money, especially if they're flexible enough to make a few changes in their lifestyle. We do not need an impressive McMansion; we do not need to wear the latest fashions; we do not need to travel; we do not need a new car, or maybe not even a car at all.

     Instead, retirement is about family, friends -- and some activities that we like to do and might even find meaningful. And all we need is the courage of our convictions. The courage to pull up roots and move near our grandchildren -- or perhaps overseas if that's what we always dreamed about. The courage to take a class, join a church group, pick up a paint brush, start a band, or just to step up to the mike and sing karaoke.

     I like to play golf and ping pong; I like to go visit my kids and grandkids; I like the volunteer job that I do. And of course, I do this blog. But you know what? I feel like I could do more, something more meaningful or impactful. I'm still searching.

     What do you like to do? What would you like to do?

     I heard some advice that I try to take to heart: Instead of just killing time, we should try to do things that we find both fun and meaningful. And whatever it is we do, it should involve some time spent engaged in physical activity, some time engaged in mental activity, and some time in social activity.

     My brother-in-law recently emailed me. He's 87, and still an avid golfer. Last week, he boasted, he almost shot his age. He got 88. Didn't quite make it; but he'll keep trying.

     I know someone else who can match his age in pushups. He's a bit younger. But a couple of times a week he gets down and does 70 pushups. And I just read about the guy who celebrated his 90th birthday by jumping out of an airplane . . . 9 times in one day!

     One thing I'm just beginning to realize, however, is that as we get older we become more invisible. People don't ask our opinion. They don't include us in social activities. They ignore our suggestions.

     Some of that is inevitable, but if we know it's a problem we can work around it. We can find something more interesting to talk about than our health problems, or how the world has been going downhill ever since the 1970s. And if we're involved in something, we can talk about what we're doing, where we're going, who we've met along the way.

     Another thing we realize is that our lives are finite. We've seen friends and family develop health problems, or decline mentally. We don't know how much time we have left. So while I don't believe we should ever give up searching, there's no reason to put off doing what we want to do. 

Saturday, November 13, 2021

What Makes Us Happy in Retirement?

     Here are some notes made by Jeremy Kisner who attended a presentation given by Michael Finke, a retirement researcher at American College of Financial Services. Finke holds a PhD in consumer sciences from Ohio State as well as a PhD in finance from University of Missouri. But he has discovered that wealth and income play a only limited role in determining happiness in retirement.

     Jeremy Kisner, who has graced us before with his wisdom, is director of financial planning at Surevest Private Wealth in Phoenix, AZ. He writes a blog called Clear and Concise Financial Advice and knows very well how other factors, besides money, bring us happiness. I'll let him explain . . . 

     The single most important factor influencing happiness and well-being in retirement is . . . 

     * Creating and maintaining friendships.

     * The most important relationship, by far, for married couples is the one with their spouse. It is hard to be happy in retirement if you are not happy in your marriage.

     * Don't kid yourself, maintaining friendships takes some time and effort.

     * Women are better than men at maintaining friendships. Many men rely too much on their wives for social interaction, which can sometimes put a strain on the marriage.

       Activities

     * We romanticize what we will do in retirement, dreaming of the golf course, the beach, the exotic travel destinations. In reality the #1 activity in retirement is watching TV.

     * Relaxing all the time does not make us happy. It is important to find activities that interest us.

     * Perhaps the best use of financial resources, in terms of happiness, is investing in hobbies that lead to social interaction -- anything from golf to biking, collecting classic cars to joining a knitting circle.

     Financial security is correlated with retirement happiness -- so what should we spend our money on?

     * On average life satisfaction does rise with wealth, up until about $4 million in assets. Wealth above that level does not increase happiness, and in some cases ultra-high-net-worth folks are less happy.

     * Spending more on social activities makes people happier -- eating out with friends, traveling, entertaining. These expenditures, which may be considered "frivolous" or "optional" are actually more important for making people happier than any other type of spending.

     * The typical retiree spends about the same amount of money in their first year of retirement as they did in their final year working. However, they do not need the same amount of gross income, since they do not pay payroll taxes, do not need to add to savings. Workers with over $100K in earnings typically need to replace about 60% to 70% of pre-retirement gross income.

     * Real spending (adjusted for inflation) tends to decline as the years go by. Spending falls faster among wealthier retirees.

     * If people have pensions, they spend more on so-called frivolous things and are happier. Surveys show that an additional $10,000 in annual pension income brings as much happiness as an additional $643K in investable assets.

     * Many retirees who do not have a pension feel uncomfortable spending down their assets, even if they have a lot of savings. In one survey 84% of participants indicated that they were uncomfortable with the idea of using up even a portion of their nest egg to supplement their income.

     Do children make us happier?

     * Retirees who have children are slightly happier, on average, than those who do not. However, if the children live within 10 miles, this tends to reduce happiness -- due largely to unrealistic expectations of what the relationship should be. Some of the pitfalls: Children don't take their parents' advice; retirees become a cheap babysitting service; spouses want different amounts of time with the kids and grandkids.

     What type of housing makes retirees the happiest?

     * Many new retirees figure they will take a few years to decide where and how they want to live -- whether they want to downsize, for example, or relocate. However, keeping options open for too long makes people less happy. Once people make a choice and move forward with decisions, they are happier.

     * Homeowners are happier than renters, up to their early 80s. After that, people are happier when they can have an active social life without the burden of ownership, and without having to travel -- which can often mean going to an independent-living facility or continuing-care community.

     How does health impact life satisfaction?

      * It is no surprise that health is important for enjoying life. Poor health reduces life satisfaction, and in general the worse your health the more unhappy you become. However, excellent health alone does not make people happy.

     Longevity insights

     * The gap in longevity between men and women has narrowed. In 1980 the average 65-year-old woman could expect to outlive her husband by about 4 years. Now the longevity gap has narrowed to approximately 2 1/2 years. Men who used to abuse their bodies with excess drinking, daily smoking, poor diet, are now making healthier lifestyle choices.

     * A healthy, upper-middle-income 65-year-old couple has a 43% chance of at least one spouse living to age 95.

     * Longevity does increase with income.  For a host of reasons related to wealth, the richest 1% of men live 14.6 years longer than the poorest 1% of men. For women the gap is less: 10.1 years.

     * The wealth and longevity gap is growing. Over the past 15 years, life expectancy has increased by 2.34 years for men and 2.91 years for women in the top 5% income bracket. But life expectancy has increased by just a few months for men, and less than one month for women in the bottom 5% of the income tables.

     

     The bottom line

     So Jeremy Kisner concludes:  To live a long and healthy life, it helps to be reasonably wealthy and have a secure income (in the form of a pension for example). But do not get obsessed with money. Instead, invest your time and effort in relationships, in experiences and in health.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Is Your Home Retirement Ready?

     Maybe my wife and I are in denial. We've been talking to some friends lately, and it seems that everyone we know has prepared themselves for living with a disability -- or "aging in place" as they say. Meanwhile, we're cruising along in a center hall colonial that was built in the early 1960s.

     We have a yard. This afternoon we're going outside to rake leaves. Fortunately, we only have to get the leaves to the curb. Our town picks them up. Still, even though we have a small yard, we have an oak tree and a couple of maple trees, plus there's a huge tree in our next-door neighbor's yard that seems to drop most of its leaves onto our lawn. 

     Meanwhile, most of our friends have moved into a townhouse or condominium. They don't have to rake leaves at all.

     We'll see how my arthritic ankles and knees hold out for the afternoon. But my wife B says the exercise is good for me. 

     We know several people who have moved out of their family home into a one-story house. The master bedroom is on the first floor. They don't have to climb steps.

     Our bedroom is on the second floor. I go up and down the stairs at least ten times a day. Again, B says it's good for me.

Be careful!
     Actually, going up the stairs doesn't bother me. But going down is a little more difficult. I get a twinge in my knee, a crack in my ankle. I have resolved to always make sure to hold onto the bannister when negotiating the stairs. I know the last thing you want when you're our age is a fall. 

     So what about you . . . have you given up lawn care, settled into living on one floor without the hazard of stairs?

     One good thing for us: We have only one step up to enter the house. I remember when we were touring around a few years ago looking for a place to retire. We considered Charleston, SC, where we have family. Every house we looked at was built on stilts. We had to climb a full set of stairs just to get to the front door. It honestly didn't bother me at the time -- we moved to Pennsylvania for other reasons -- but today I'm glad I don't live in a house that's 12 or 14 feet off the ground.

     What about throw rugs? They are a tripping hazard in my book. But B thinks that they look nice, that they brighten up the place. We've compromised. There's a throw rug in her office, and another one in the guest room. But for the most part we have bare floors, except for the carpeting in our bedroom.

     When we redid our bathroom, I insisted on installing a grab bar. I remembered the time, six or eight years ago, when I slipped in the shower. I grabbed the soap dish and pulled it out of the wall. I went down hard, taking the shower curtain and shower rod with me, ending up sprawled over the edge of the tub. I didn't break any bones. But I had a nasty bruise from hip to shoulder -- one that took two months to clear up entirely.

Okay
     Some other things to watch out for:  Lighting. We have good lighting on our stairs. But there are darker areas in the house, and yes, I have tripped over the corner of a chair, or banged my hip on the side of a kitchen counter. But even if you have good lights, you have to turn them on to do any good. I have been known to prowl through the house at night when I can't sleep and decide I need to find the kitchen, or the bathroom ... all in the dark. 
Better

   Most of our doorknobs are the old-fashioned round ones that you twist to open or close. But we do have a levered doorknob on the front door. I don't know why. We didn't put it there. But in all honesty I do find it easier to open and close than the door to the garage which seems to simultaneously get stickier and slipperier with every passing year.

     There's definitely more for us to do to get ready for "aging in place." One thing I refuse to worry about is making the house wheelchair accessible. When and if that time ever comes, I'm heading off to a retirement community.