"To be too certain of anything is the beginning of bigotry." -- Novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Do You Ever Feel Trapped?

     Do you feel trapped by medical costs -- paying more and more out of pocket while receiving, or foregoing, necessary care or drugs?

     This week on The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide, Rita R. Robison, consumer journalist, tackles the issue of Prescription Drug Prices Rising -- to the point where some people are unable to fill their prescriptions. According to a survey by Consumer Reports, 25% of Americans who regularly take a prescription drug say they now pay more out of pocket than they did 12 months ago.

     Some of the price increases are substantial -- 24% of regular prescription takers said they paid $50 or more out of pocket for a single prescription this year than they did for the same medication last year. And 15% paid $100 more than they did in 2016. One result? Some 14% of those surveyed said they didn’t fill their prescription due to the increased cost.

     On a related note, Carol Cassara points out that you can feel trapped when you're suffering from a disease, especially cancer, but it's important to keep a positive attitude, for your thoughts and feelings can certainly affect your health. In Chemo & the Mind Body Connection she points out that stress and negative thinking can increase heart rate and blood pressure and may even be a contributing factor to heart attacks and stroke. But now an increasing number of scientific studies show that the mind can also support whatever treatment a patient is getting through affirmations and other positive thoughts and thus can play a role in helping heal as well.

     Meanwhile, Laura Lee Carter saw an old movie this week -- Easy Rider, remember that one? -- which made her reflect on how much she has changed since 1969, and how most of the changes have come since she escaped the trap of her city life and struck out for the hills of rural Colorado. But whether you live in the country or the city, she says in Easy Rider: The View from 62, you can certainly appreciate and maybe recognize how she has learned a lot about her biases and judgments of people she doesn't know -- and how she has lightened the load of judgments on those who don't look or talk like her.

     Kathy Gottberg asks us if we ever get caught up in thinking or doing things that you know aren't healthy or good for you. In The Art of Trapology, or a Bedtime Story for Thriving and Happy Adults she reviews a new business-parable book called Trap Tales -- Outsmarting the 7 Hidden Obstacles to Success that offers a number of great life lessons and also provides a fun way to learn and become a certified trapologist!

     Finally, Meryl Baer never seems to sit still long enough to be caught in a trap. Following a few weeks spent at home, she is once more on the road. Her travels began not in the air or the sea, or comfortably seated on a bus or train, but in her small but extremely efficient car. Read about the first day of her latest escape in Was Driving Ever Fun?

     Well ... whatever. To be philosophical about it, take a look at the Robert Frost quote from Heart, Mind, Soul. Maybe you'll get an inspiration for living your best life, which after all, is the most important thing we can ever ask for.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

8 Things to Love About Retirement

There is no doubt we have some issues to face when we retire. We may have money problems or health problems. Our relationships with friends and family are likely to change, we may experience episodes of boredom or loneliness.

Some people wonder what they will do with all their extra time. They fear they’ll become irrelevant, or that they’ll feel aimless or out of sorts. And that’s why retirees should make some decisions about what is important to them so they can plan out the future and appreciate retirement for the exceptional opportunity that it really is.

So think of the opportunities that present themselves in retirement. It’s no coincidence that studies have shown people tend to be happiest when they are in their 60s and 70s – when work responsibilities have been shed, when the kids have grown up and are on their own, when everyday stress levels seem to melt away like the spring snows.

Of course, different people appreciate different aspects of retirement. Do you have some special reasons of your own? Here are a few mine.

1. We're free of the drug of ambition. I spent a lot of my working life competing with my colleagues, pushing for a raise, angling for a promotion – all in the pursuit of getting ahead, because that’s what American are supposed to do. But now I no longer care if I get promoted, no longer have to jockey for a better title or an office with a window. A big weight is lifted from your shoulders when you quit the rat race. It’s the freedom that many retirees appreciate so much – freedom from the pressure to get ahead at work, to get your kid into college, to keep up with the neighbors.

          2. We have time to appreciate culture. You might have been too busy with career and kids to follow some of the great  movie directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen, Robert Altman. Now you can go on Netflix or Amazon – or borrow DVDs from the library -- and enjoy some of the great stories of our time. There’s also time to keep up with current programming, or just to read a book. B has belonged to a book club for years. Now I finally have the time to read a biography or a novel, and sit around to talk about it. The latest book on my reading list is News of the World, getting ready for my next meeting over at our senior center.

3. You can still work part time. Just because you’re retired doesn’t mean you can’t pick up a job here and there. I still get an occasional assignment from my old company. B, who retired from the library last September, is now back working there one day a week. A friend of mine took a part-time job as a checker at our local grocery store; another works three days a week at the public golf course. There are many possibilities, but no obligations.

4. We babysit our grandchildren. We just had our first grandchild, and so like many retirees we look forward to the opportunity to get to know our grandchildren, spend time with them, and hopefully create deep and lasting memories with them – memories that will last long after we are gone.

5. There’s time to give back. To be honest, I didn’t do much volunteering when I was working. I didn’t coach Little League or belong to the Lions. But now I have found my niche as a volunteer tutor at our community college, and I find it enormously rewarding to share my knowledge and skills with young, sometimes-disadvantaged kids who so obviously appreciate my efforts.

6. We can go whenever we want.  B flies midweek to see her son and saves a lot of money. We drive during non-rush hours. We feel free to go out to dinner at 5 p.m. Or, we can stay out late because we don’t have to go to work the next morning.  Personally, I’m not a big traveler. But plenty of retirees are, and they make bucket lists that include trips to the Grand Canyon or the Empire State Building, to the Pyramids or the Great Wall of China.

7. We have the time to do nothing. Finally … there’s time to enjoy the pleasure of sitting on the front porch or the back deck and soak up the atmosphere, reflecting on your life and enjoying the cool breezes wafting across your face.

8. We can do what we want, instead of what other people want us to do. In retirement there are no more expectations. You no longer have to please your parents, or support your kids. You can move to the city, or the country. You can write a book, trace your ancestry, take up a new hobby. No matter how well-financed you may or may not be, you can live the lifestyle of the truly wealthy – you can do what you want and answer to nobody.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Other Side of Buffett

     The great Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha, held his annual shareholder's meeting for Berkshire Hathaway this past week. Some 40,000 people attended the event, called the Woodstock for Capitalists, to hear Buffett and partner Charlie Munger hold forth on the company, the country, the state of capitalism and what is perceived to be sane, responsible investing advice for regular middle-class Americans.

     Buffett is lauded for his common sense and his modesty -- the very fact that he still lives in Nebraska, rather than moving to New York, LA or Washington, DC, seems to give him credibility. And the fact that he lives in the same modest house he bought many decades ago somehow shows that he is "one of us" rather than the usual greedy, grasping, maximizing-shareholder-value corporate executive or Wall Street shark.

     To be honest, I have read several books by and about Buffett, and have paid attention to his musings for a number of years. He does offer good investment advice, and in many ways he is a reasonable, responsible person.

     He is a good businessperson. And there's nothing wrong with being a businessperson. But let's face it, that folksy image and golly-gee-whiz approach is mostly a product of marketing and public relations. He may be skeptical, like many of us, about the salesmanship and sheer arrogance that comes out of Wall Street. But he himself is a sharp, crafty operator who is singularly focused on making money for himself, his partners and, sure, his shareholders, too -- anyone who can pony up for at least one unit of BRK-A at $247,000 per share.

     What got me started on this is my recent experience with a real-estate agent who works for Berkshire Hathaway. Normally the real-estate agent is paid by the seller. But now Berkshire Hathaway is sneaking in a new fee, charging an extra $375 to the buyer. For administrative fees. For doing all the paperwork. In other words, for no other reason than it can.

     So at the same time folksy old Buffett trades on his image as a regular guy, in favor of fair, honest liberal capitalism, he is gouging homebuyers for an extra $375 just for the privilege of doing business with him.

     Meanwhile, Buffett is a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton and other Democrats. But does he truly support Democratic policies and values? Well, Berkshire Hathaway also owns a railroad company that makes a lot of money by hauling coal -- dirty, old coal -- for the electric companies to burn and pollute the atmosphere. Buffett says the right things about the environment. But let's pay attention to what he does, not what he says. Think about it ... is what he does much different from Donald Trump lifting regulations on coal miners?

     Buffett also own a big interest in United Airlines. He surely had nothing to do with pulling that doctor off the flight. But don't you think, as a major shareholder, he has something to do with the general atmosphere and culture of the company? Ditto with Wells Fargo and all those bogus accounts the company opened without the permission or knowledge of its customers.

     Then there's Coca Cola. He owns a big chunk of the company, and guzzles several cans of Coke a day. Does it worry him that Coke contains enormous amount of sugar? Does he feel in any way responsible for the obesity epidemic going on in America today?

     Apparently not. For when he defends his product he sounds disturbingly like the cigarette makers who defend smoking, or the gun manufactures who say that guns don't kill people, people kill people.

     Says Buffet, as quoted in Fortune: "I drink about five Cokes a day. It has about 1.2 ounces of sugar in it ... I like to get my calories from this. I enjoy it ... and I think that choice should be mine. Maybe sugar is harmful and maybe you'd encourage the government to ban sugar ... But I think Coca Cola has been a very positive factor in the country and the world. And I really don’t want anyone telling me I can’t drink it."

     Now I don't mean to bash Warren Buffett. Or Coke, for that matter. Or Wells Fargo. I occasionally enjoy a Coke or a Diet Coke. Just please don't try to tell me that Coke is good for me. I have an account at Wells Fargo -- but it's been a joke in my family for years that you simply cannot walk in the door of a Wells Fargo branch without the teller trying to sell you on a service or open a new account -- and if you have a credit card through Wells Fargo it doesn't blush at charging 20% interest or more on an unpaid balance or cash advance. So don't try to tell me that Wells Fargo is looking after my best interests.

     And please don't try to tell me that Warren Buffett is some kind of American hero, or friend of the American consumer. He is not an evil person. He gives a lot of money to charity. But he has made his fortune selling sugar and coal and questionable financial products to the masses. All I'm saying is, it's a little early to start granting him sainthood.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Did You Forget Something?

     "Honey, where did you put the coffee?" I called out to B in the living room. She went to Costco yesterday to pick up some things, mostly for her church picnic, but I had asked her to buy one of Costco's big jars of coffee. Now I was looking for it in the kitchen cabinet.

     "It's on the top shelf," she called back.

     I looked again at the top shelf. But it wasn't there. I looked in a couple of other cabinets. Then B came in and searched around the kitchen. "I don't know," she said. "Maybe I left it in the car."

     "Don't worry about it," I said. "We have enough coffee for this morning. We can check the car later."

     "No I'd rather do it now, while I'm thinking about it." Then, a  few seconds later she asked me: "Do you have the car keys?" They weren't in their regular place.

Where's the coffee? No joking matter.
     We were out late last night, and I drove home. Where were the keys? I looked on the bookshelf where we usually keep them. Not there. I looked on the dining room table. Then I went into the bedroom and found them on my bureau, under a couple of papers ... realizing I had to look for something first, in order to then go look for something else!

     The coffee wasn't in the car. B came back inside. "Did I buy the coffee?" she asked herself. "I'm pretty sure I did." She checked her Costco receipt. It was there. And finally, a minute later, she found the coffee, behind a big jar of pretzels and a bag of cookies sitting on the kitchen table.

     Does this scenario sounds familiar? Do you forget things? Last night we were talking and the movie Sophie's Choice came up in conversation. Who starred in Sophie's Choice? We could both picture the actress, but couldn't retrieve her name. Until later, when it finally came to us: Meryl Streep.

     Then the same thing with Sex in the City. An hour later, while we were doing something completely different, B suddenly blurted out: "Sarah Jessica Parker!"

     The early stages of Alzheimer's disease? Well, despite the evidence, I don't think so. I recently read a long New York Times story called "Fraying at the Edges" about a woman who, at age 69, walked into the bathroom, looked herself in the mirror ... and didn't recognize her own face. She'd been having some problems. She'd lost her train of thought at a meeting and someone else had to bail her out. She kept getting confused over which string to pull to raise and lower the blinds in her bedroom. One day she got off a train, and couldn't figure out what she was doing there.

     She saw a neurologist who administered a cognition test -- count backward from 100 in intervals of seven; say the phrase "No ifs, ands or buts," remember three common words for later (she recalled one) -- and the doctor did indeed diagnose early-stage Alzheimer's.

     Alzheimer's is "degenerative and incurable, and democratic in its reach," as the Times put it. Worldwide, 44 million people have Alzheimer's or related dementia. It is most common in Western Europe, with North America close behind. More than 5 million Americans are believed to have it. The disease affects women more than men, mostly because it's primarily a disease of old age and women live longer than men. People on average live with Alzheimer's about 8 to 10 years, though some of course live longer.

     The doctor put this woman on a drug, Aricept, and she later was included in a trial for a new experimental drug that did seem to slow her decline. She joined a support group. The people shared their stories, played memory games, talked about ways they and their families coped with the disease.

     She found she started relying on her iPhone to make notes, keep her schedule, even to take pictures of places where she had gone so she could remember them. She leaned on her husband, who watched over her schedule, made sure she didn't get lost ... and who drove her around. She had to give up driving after she had a couple of minor mishaps on the road.

     What helped her most, though, was finding a new purpose in life. She and her husband began to talk to groups about living with Alzheimer's. They worked with several organizations to develop strategies for coping with the ravages of the disease. They fought against the stigma of Alzheimer's -- how so many people are in the closet because they're afraid they will be dismissed by friends and colleagues, dropped from social situations, considered no longer relevant.

     Today, five years later, the woman, now 74, is still dealing with the everyday challenges of Alzheimer's. But she is still very much alive.

     Hopefully, neither B nor I will have to face these issues. B's mother is losing the mental sharpness she once had. But B's mother is 100 years old, going on 101. Otherwise, we have no history of dementia in either of our families. But if we ever do become afflicted with Alzheimer's, or any other disease or disability, I hope we will be able to still find some purpose in life, as this woman has found a new meaning in Alzheimer's -- which, after all, is a challenge for all of us retired people, in sickness or in health.