Sunday, May 19, 2019

How Do You Talk to Old People?

     B and I visited her former father-in-law last week. He's 94 years old and lives in an assisted-living facility. He's one of those rare men who outlive their wives. The two of us were bringing him out to lunch.

     Usually, when we go to see him, it's in a family group. He has three daughters (along with his son, B's husband, who died almost 20 years ago). B and I usually greet him warmly, say hello how are you, make some light, casual chat. But we don't really talk one-on-one.

     So in the car on our way over to his place, B and I discussed how we would engage him in conversation. What could we talk about that he'd be interested in?

     Two of his daughters live nearby; the third lives out west. She'd recently visited, and we knew the three daughters had recently gone to visit their old family home in New Jersey. Maybe we could get him to talk about the old neighborhood, tell us a story about the kids. Maybe he'd open up a little about his past life. It would give us something to keep the conversation going, and it might be interesting.

     So we arrived. He was waiting for us at the door. We drove over to the restaurant, helped him out of the car and settled into a table. B and I each ordered a sandwich. He went for a full, hot meal. He is used to three squares a day in his assisted-living cafeteria.

     We exchanged our usual pleasantries. We talked a little about his children, his grandchildren and now two great-grandchildren. Then I mentioned that his daughters had told us they'd visited their old home, and posted a few pictures online. So ... is that where they grew up?

     "Oh, yeah."

     "So, how long did you live there?"

     "Ah, let me think. It was my wife's house. She grew up there."

     "Yeah . . ."

     He stared at us.

     "So," B ventured, "your oldest daughter and her husband were high-school sweethearts, right?"

     Pause. "Yeah, that's right."

     Well, you get the idea. Talking about the past was like pulling teeth. I don't know if he didn't remember much, or if he just didn't want to talk about it. I thought maybe he just didn't talk very much at all anymore, living in the facility by himself, without his wife.

     But as soon as we dropped the questions about his family and moved on to the subject of the activities at his assisted-living facility, he suddenly became very voluble. He told us about his poker game, and his pinochle game, and the exercise class he takes. He waxed enthusiastically about his meals. They got a new grill in the kitchen, and he says now the pancakes in the morning are much better -- lighter and fluffier and tastier.

     So, obviously, I'm got giving any advice in this post. I'm asking for help. I remember as my own parents got older, trying to get them to talk about their younger years, but they were never really interested. I only ever got the bare outline and a few anecdotes.

     Is my experience typical? If so, how do you get old people to open up and talk about their younger years? Many of them led interesting lives, I'm sure. Maybe they were immigrants. Or they grew up on a farm. Or were in the military. They had jobs, owned businesses, lived lives that were very different from ours.

     It seems a shame to let all that history just die with them. So how do we get them to remember their stories and share them with us?

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

How to Live Within Your Means

     After we retire, we no longer get a paycheck. We knew it was going to happen, but knowing it and experiencing it are two different things.

     If you are struggling to live within your budget I've got a few suggestions that might help bring your retirement expenses into line with a more modest retirement income. (And if you have any other ideas, I'd love to hear them.)

     The most important thing, I believe, is to economize on legacy goods and services -- things you're paying for that you don't really care about anymore. For example, maybe you're still paying for a membership to a swim-and-tennis club that your kids used to use, or a gym membership that you intended to use but never did. Or, if you're like me and have remarried, you can consolidate a lot of bills -- like insurance, phone, AAA membership -- to help your monthly budget.

     Maybe you don't go to the big box store anymore, where you drop $250, and now that the kids are gone you end up throwing away half of your "bargain" purchases. And, do you really need life insurance if you don't have any dependents anymore?

     If all this seems like small potatoes, remember, one small change may not make much of a difference, but add them all up and you might be talking real money.

     I know from my own experience that if you downsize, you can sell some of the things you no longer use. Before we moved, I made about $200 when I carted several boxes of "leftovers" from our basement to the local picker's store. I could have made more if we had thought ahead and joined the neighborhood tag sale.

     Other people may have bigger fish to fry. Do you still have that old boat you bought when your kids were teenagers? Do you have an extra car that's rusting away in the driveway, or a vacation condo or time share you hardly ever use anymore? Even if your unwanted items have greatly depreciated, it's still better to have the money now rather than the headache of getting rid of it later on.

     Also, as we enter retirement we should be paying down debt not taking out more loans. There will be no more salary increases to cover those additional monthly payments. The credit card is the worst (do we all pay off in full at the end of the month?) since interest rates are high and penalties lurk around every corner. If you are running a balance, don't hesitate to call your credit company to try to negotiate a better rate. Sometimes it works!

     But we shouldn't worry too much if we're carrying a mortgage into retirement. That is the last debt to pay off. But trust me, there's no better feeling of security than living in a home that's free and clear of the bank.

     I'm not going to try to tell you how to save money when you're traveling, because I'm no expert. I don't travel that much. (But come to think of it, it's certainly one way to afford retirement -- cut down on the travel budget!)

     But I will mention something else. It's something I see all the time: Retired people still buying things for their grownup kids, or sending them a check a couple of times a year. But there's no law that says you have to subsidize their rent or pony up a down payment on a car or house. Remember the old saying about roots and wings. You gave your kids roots. Now it's time to give them wings, and let them fly on their own.

     I got this last idea at a retirement seminar I attended -- not a practical tip, but more of an attitude adjustment. One fellow stood up and told us that he retired from IBM about three years ago. He used to run a department and have people reporting to him, and he had a pretty good salary and some stock options and he wasn't shy about spending his money on a big house and three cars and a yearly trip to Europe.

     After he retired he felt like he had no purpose in life. Then he realized he had defined himself by his job -- he was an IBMer -- and in some sense he "kept score" of his life by how much money he made and how many people reported to him. Now he didn't have that anymore. He had to come up with a different way to define himself and a different way to keep score.

     Now he volunteers with Habitat for Humanity and also at the local senior center. He sold his house and moved into a condominium, and he doesn't travel much anymore. Why? Because now he defines himself as a volunteer rather than an IBMer, and he keeps score not by how much money he makes, or by how much stuff he buys, but by how many people he has helped.

     He doesn't make nearly as much money, and doesn't spend as much either. But he enjoys a closer relationship with his community. And he feels less stressed, more relaxed, and in his heart he is much happier.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Medicare for All?

     I think I'd be in favor of Medicare for all . . . if somehow we could make it work. But it's important to realize that, despite the claims of some politicians, Medicare for all is not the same as free medical care for all.

     And Medicare is not that simple. There's Part A which we get for free. That covers hospital stays and a few associated health services. However, there is a deductible of $1,364, as well as some caps on benefits.

     Part B covers, typically, 80 percent of outpatient care and medical supplies. This costs us $135.50 per month, per person -- or more. If you're single and your income is over $85,000 per year, you pay $189.60 per month. And it goes up from there, as a person's income level goes up. And Part B also has a deductible of $185 per year.

     And neither of these pays for drugs. For that we need a drug plan, which we can get through a Medicare Advantage Plan or else a supplemental Part D plan. The cost for the drug plan varies, but ranges from $30 to $40 per month and up. (Again, higher premiums begin for singles with incomes over $85,000 a year.). And the drug plan also hits us with a deductible.

     Plus, Medicare Part B only pays 80 percent of outpatient costs. For the other 20 percent we need some kind of supplemental insurance, which could be Medicare Advantage or something else. Also, Medicare does not pay for glasses, dental bills, hearing aids, non-prescription drugs. Some supplemental plans cover a portion of these costs, others do not.

     So you see, Medicare is not free. It doesn't cover everything. And it's also complicated.

     Still and all, most people on Medicare are glad to have it (I know I am) . . . because while it doesn't provide medical care for free, it does make it reasonably affordable. And besides, other medical insurance options are very limited for us since we're no longer working.

     Do you think most younger Americans would like to be on Medicare? Would they be willing to pay for it? Would they support the mandatory enrollment that would be necessary to make it viable?

     And then, what happens if people have Medicare, but they don't sign up and pay for a supplemental plan? What happens when they have a real medical problem, and their 20 percent comes to several thousand dollars?

     The obvious problem is that most people want top-notch health care, but they don't want to pay for it. The Sanders single-payer experiment in Vermont, for example, failed when people found out it would raise the payroll tax by 11.5 percent and the income tax by 9 percent.

     And a recent poll from the nonpartisan Kaiser Foundation found that some 70 percent of Americans approve the idea of Medicare for all that would "guarantee health insurance as a right for all Americans." But when the question included the reality that any new system would raise taxes, or that people would not be able to keep their current insurance or could potentially face delays in medical tests, the level of support fell to just 30-something percent.

     I hope you don't expect a simple retirement blog like mine to provide all the answers. I sure don't have them. But if you're interested, you can go on to read Bernie Sanders's Medicare for All Explained, and related articles in the New York TimesÀ votre santé!

Saturday, May 4, 2019

How Have You Been Surprised by Retirement?

     We can’t know what’s ahead in retirement any more than we know about our career when we take our first job. We may start out with a plan. But life happens, and then we’re in the midst of something entirely different.

     The surprises might come right away, when the reality of retirement doesn’t match up with our dreams. They may come later, after we think we’ve got it all figured out . . . only we don’t. By definition, we can’t know what surprises are in store for us. Here are a few. Have you experienced others?

     A child moves back home. No one’s surprised if a son or daughter returns home after graduating from college. The surprise comes when a single, 32-year-old son loses his high-tech job in the city, can no longer pay his rent, and moves back in with mom and dad in the suburbs. This is what happened to a friend of mine. Fortunately, after a few missteps, and a sometimes-anxious year and a half, he found another job and now he’s off on his own again.

     Where are we living now? A close friend of mine told me always figured he’d retire to Florida because, as he put it, “I’m from New York, and that’s what New Yorkers do.” He and his wife spent several years visiting various Florida communities, until one day on the way home they stopped to visit a friend in Charleston, SC. They fell in love with the city, and before the week was out they’d put down a deposit on a townhouse. Now, two years later, they love it . . . but they’re still surprised they ended up in South Carolina instead of Florida. In my own case, I retired to Pennsylvania. Why? Because my wife has relatives here, and we visited a lot, and the more we visited the more we liked it. And then, after we moved, I was surprised to find out that Pennsylvania is rated by wallet hub the 9th best state to retire in, behind Florida but ahead of South Carolina.

     The doctor calls. Probably we all get a nasty medical surprise at some point. I played tennis when I was younger and was going to become a pickleball star in retirement. But the arthritis in my knees and ankles had a different idea. So I’m playing golf instead. I don’t mind. At least I’m on my feet. Still, many people are taken aback when they discover they have to limit their activities or take medication for the rest of their lives.

     Are we going to work? A lot of people plan to take a part-time job after they retire, then are surprised to find out the workforce is not clambering for 65 year olds. I have a friend who works as a checker at the grocery store. He says he likes it, although it's not exaclty my idea of a dream job. Another friend rents out a room in her house through airbnb. My brother-in-law drives for uber. Personally, I had connection in my old company who gave me freelance work . . . until he in turn retired. Now I'm thinking of working at our local independent movie theater. But it's a volunteer job.

     Money doesn’t matter as much. Yet I find that retirement is a great leveler. Most of us expect to live on a reduced income with Social Security, some savings and maybe a pension. Our income is stable. We’re not pushing for a raise or promotion. The pressure is off. So a lot of people are surprised that success in retirement is less about how big our house is, or what car we drive, and more about having fun, hanging out with a good crowd, and leaving a legacy for friends and family.

     We can deal with all the change. I know it's sounds stupid, but it's a surprise to me that after retirement, life goes on -- meaning things continue to change. We move; we have grandchildren; our kids do something unexpectedly different. We have different friends, perhaps different interests. We realize we can cope with a lot of change and adapt to new developments. Yes, some of us are surprised that we can do this!

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Going Home

     I've moved to a strange place, in a way. B and I come from the New York suburbs. When we were kids, back in the 1970s, it seemed that everyone left home as soon as they could and headed somewhere else -- Boston or Washington or at least New York City. B and I are almost unusual in that, though we both did live in New York City for a while, we moved back to the suburbs.

     Some 30 or 35 years later our kids and their friends all graduated from high school and also went off somewhere else -- first to college, then to look for opportunities in New York City, Boston, Atlanta, California, or somewhere in between. Hardly anyone stayed in their suburban hometown.

     And now, most of us parents, when we get ready to retire, start looking around for a place to relocate -- Florida, the Carolinas, sometimes Arizona, Oregon or Washington, or even overseas.

     When B and I decided to retire to Pennsylvania, I thought: Who retires to Pennsylvania?!? I even wondered if we'd ever meet any retired people. I figured they'd all left and gone to the Sunbelt.

     Boy, was I wrong. There are retired folk all over the place in Pennsylvania -- as well as the resources to cater to them. My town has a senior center. It has a Center for Learning in Retirement at the local university. There are plenty of cultural events catering to older people -- an independent movie theater, lots of mid-level restaurants, lots of churches, flower shows, a museum, an arts fair, a chapter of the senior women's social group Encore. And there's a hospital much larger than you'd expect for a town our size, along with literally hundreds of doctors doing a land-office business in colonoscopies, knee replacements and cataract surgeries.

     In turns out, according a January 2019 WalletHub report, that Pennsylvania in the 9th best state to retire in, behind Florida and Colorado but ahead of other retirement meccas like Arizona and the Carolinas.

     So we've found that the people around Philadelphia behave nothing like the people around New York (even though they are only an hour-and-a-half away from each other by train or car.) They do not leave home when they retire. And their kids don't leave either. They stay close to home, in Philadelphia, working in the city or the suburbs or across the river on Pill Alley in New Jersey (a stretch that houses a number of drug companies such as Merck and Johnson & Johnson).

     When we meet people who tell us they've moved in from New Hampshire, Chicago, California, North Carolina -- as we do -- then we find out later that they've lived and worked in Chicago or California for 20 or 30 years, but they grew up in the Philadelphia area. They wanted to come back, mostly because they still have family here.

     But where we come from in New York? Nobody goes back. Maybe because it's too expensive to live there on a fixed income. Maybe because our kids aren't there anymore. Or maybe it's because the ex-New Yorkers have established lives in their new homes and don't want to leave.

     So I wonder, is your town or city more like New York, or more like Philadelphia. Do people leave, or do they stay?

Katonah, NY
     Anyway, we finally left New York, and moved to the Philadelphia area. But now we are going back for a visit. We got an airbnb in Katonah, a typical suburban town near where we used to live. The occasion is the annual rummage sale at B's old church. She will spend three days helping to organize, arrange and sell old clothes, toys, sports equipment; furniture, kitchenware and assorted other housewares.

     B likes to volunteer and be helpful. But the real draw for B is that she gets to stand around, fold clothes, and chat with all her old friends, catching up with their kids, their spouses, their activities and comings and goings.

     Meanwhile, we'll have dinner with our old neighbors (who are both still working), and another dinner with an old friend of mine (his wife is still working). I've persuaded my son to come out from Brooklyn to have lunch. I will also play golf with three old friends at a familiar public course. The last time I played there was in August 2017, the day after we attended the funeral of a friend of ours.

     I plan to take a drive past my old homes, and maybe take a pass by the school where my kids went to high school, and the old office building where I worked for 25 years.

     It's only been two years since we left. I wonder if everything will look the same?