"In this sticky web that we're all in, behaving decently is no small task." -- Novelist Stacey D'Erasmo

Saturday, June 27, 2020

How Do You Cope with Change?

     The Coronavirus has brought dramatic change to all of our lives. But change is nothing new. We had a discussion about change last week in one of our classes at the local Center for Learning in Retirement. We didn't come up with any definitive answers. Instead, we all realized that change -- though always with us -- is a complicated thing.

     Most of us like to think that we embrace change. We're supposed to be progressive and look to the future. But some people admitted that they like their current routine -- they don't want to be jolted into a new regimen.

     Or as one woman said, "The only person who likes change is the baby with the wet diaper."

     Many of us have retired in the past few years. The change in our priorities, and even our routines, is still fresh in our minds. Some people have had difficulty coping with this change. They feel as though they are drifting, even wasting their lives, without a job to do, a reason to get up in the morning. Others have greeted retirement with open arms, pursuing new activities, developing new relationships -- and now they think they were wasting their lives when they were working for someone else, following someone else's dreams.

     One person said that he used to like change, when he was younger and change meant greater opportunities, new experiences, new relationships. But he's not so sure about change anymore. He just turned 70, and now he foresees that the changes in his life are going to be more challenging -- managing on a smaller fixed income, dealing with illness or injury, coping with the loss of family and friends.

     But another 70-year-old said that change is a good thing. She acknowledged that we sometimes face personal loss -- but we also get grandchildren! And look at our larger society. We see women becoming more empowered, non-traditional lifestyles becoming more respected, people of color demanding not just equal rights but equal treatment.

     Besides, isn't the alternative to change just stagnation, boredom and resentment? Sure it's sometimes hard to step out of our comfort zone. But that's what keeps us vibrant, engaged and looking out to a world larger than ourselves. Change nourishes growth. And if you don't grow, you die. 

     Do people change depending on their circumstances? One person cited their mother who was a homebody when she was living in the super-competitive environment of a New York suburb. The mother was never assertive enough to get involved in the community. But then she retired to Florida, where the social environment was more friendly, more relaxed. She stepped forward and volunteered in town, even heading up a local women's group. Had she changed? Or had her environment changed?

     Somebody else wondered if a major event can make you change -- a divorce, job loss, or having a child. One women reflected how she has changed since her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. She'd been kind of a control freak her whole life. If there was a problem, she'd roll up her sleeves and fix it. But now she knew there was no fixing her husband's problem. There was coping with it, adapting to it -- something she had to learn.

     Some people wondered if we really even ever change at all. Yes, perhaps we react differently under certain circumstances, but our core beliefs and values don't really change. If we're an introvert we probably don't turn into a social butterfly just because we move down the block. If we are ambitious and crave success, we probably don't change just because we get a new job or move to another neighborhood. The Type A personality who thrives at work probably becomes the super-volunteer in retirement. The nurturing person who cares about other people will find ways to help others no matter where they are.

     But we do evolve, don't we? One man felt that he is a very different person now compared to what he was in his 20s and 30s. He recalled a line used by President George Bush to explain away his youthful indiscretions: "When I was young and stupid, I was young and stupid." This man could identify with that . . . and actually, so can I.

     So I don't know. Do you feel like you're the same person you were when you were young and . . . well, not as smart as you are now?

     We do mature, become more responsible as we get older. Perhaps having children makes us more responsible and socially aware. Or maybe we just mellow as get get older.

     Of course, the most recent change is the pandemic that's been thrust upon us these past few months. Some people are secretly happy to have the excuse to stay at home. As one women said: "I love our Zoom meetings. I don't have to get up and get ready and go to class. I can just sit around in my pajamas and still talk to people!"

     I guess change will always be with us. So I suppose we should make the best of it. 

Sunday, June 21, 2020

What Are We Doing?

     We're still in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, so what are we doing about it? How do we fight an enemy that we can't see, and where the best strategy is to stay home and do nothing?

     Some of us have been cleaning our homes and reorganizing our garages. Others have been working in their yard or garden. (Oh, my aching back!) We've been using social media.and spending lots of time on Netflix and Amazon Prime. (Has anyone signed up for HBO Max?)

     I have gone onto Coursera and found a few interesting online courses . . . and I've learned a few things in the process. I took a statistics course from a woman at MIT, a history course from a professor at University of Virginia, and a psychology course given by a Yale professor.

     B does a lot of walking, sometimes with me, sometimes with a friend -- no masks, but plenty of fresh air and social distancing.

     We go to the supermarket once a week now. But we are eating better than ever. B likes to cook; she has more time to cook; and so we've had well-prepared meals instead of a sometimes-rushed dinner thrown together after a busy day. Actually, eating a good nutritional diet will keep us healthy -- and help us fight off the virus if we do get exposed. However, I read that the average American has gained five pounds since mid-March. Being overweight is one of those underlying conditions that makes us more vulnerable to the virus. (Damn, I eat too many desserts.)

     Most people are being sensible. They socially distance; they wear masks; they wash their hands and use disinfectant. But it does seem as though many people are becoming complacent. Here in Pennsylvania -- like in much of the Northeast -- our case count is way down and restrictions are slowly being lifted. Restaurants are now open, but for outdoor seating only. Stores are open; but you're required to wear a mask to go inside. (Sorry, I'm a  wimp; we're still only doing curbside pickup.)

     My golf group has started up again. We're outdoors. We try to stay at least six feet apart. We're supposed to have a mask to wear when we're close together -- checking in, when we're all on the tee. This all works out pretty well. But sometimes people forget to don their mask, or they thoughtlessly wander too close to another person. (I know, I should walk the course, not ride in a cart.) But so far there have been no cases of Covid among the 30-some members of the group. So that's good.

     B and I had our first outdoor get-together this weekend when my son and his girlfriend came to visit. We did not wear masks. But we were vigilant about the six-foot distance. And they only went inside our house to go to the bathroom. Afterwards, we wiped down surfaces with a bleach solution. (It seemed very strange to be disinfecting after my own son.)

     But some people are getting complacent. (No comment about the Trump campaign rally.) And I've heard a few macho-sounding comments coming from some neighbors -- ah, whaddaya worried about, don't be a sissy. But I think our response has more to do with our personal psychology. If you believe in fate, that whatever's going to happen will happen, then you're more likely to ignore the virus and go out and live a normal life. If you believe that your actions have consequence, that you to some extent create your own destiny, then you're more likely to take precautions. 

     This disease is hard on people. It's hard for front-line workers, hard for people who've lost their jobs, hard for families with young kids at home. It's hard for people who want to confront a problem and do something about it -- because you can't see the enemy, and the best way to fight it is to do nothing.
What good is an old-fashioned hero like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood in fighting this disease?

     But it is very real, and very much still with us. We've had over a hundred thousand deaths, and some are predicting another hundred thousand by October. In places like Arizona, Texas, Florida, and the Carolinas, where restrictions have gone out the window, the virus seems to be coming back with a vengeance.

     So I guess the best thing to do is continue to stay home, wash our hands, keep our distance, try to take care of ourselves. And do nothing. (Maybe I'll take a  nap.)

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

"If You Wish to Preserve Yourself ..."

     I normally wouldn't be doing this, except, you know, I have a lot of time on my hands.

     I'm watching a series of lectures on Amazon Prime called The Black Death: The World's Most Devastating Plague, given by Dorsey Armstrong, professor of English and Medieval Literature at Purdue University. I'd recommend the course only to those who are really into this sort of thing. While Armstrong is obviously well-versed in her subject, the material is very historical, extremely detailed, and somewhat repetitive.

     Nevertheless, for whatever reason, every day for the last week or so I've found myself falling down the rabbit hole of the 14th century, when the bubonic plague was creeping across Asia and Europe. The Great Mortality, as it came to be called, killed some 100 million people or roughly half the world's population.

A danse macabre
     The silver lining to the period was a blossoming of certain types of art. For example, the ghoulish art form of danse macabre, showing people meeting up with their skeletal counterparts, came out of this period. There was also memento mori -- "remember you must die" -- which involved tomb art  depicting the decayed corpse of the diseased. And you might already know that The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales were written in this era -- both collections of tales told by people on a journey to escape the plague. 

     But what impressed me most about the presentation was a letter written by Louis Heyligen, a Flemish monk in the Papal Court in Avignon. (In case you don't remember from high-school history, for a time during the 1300s the Papacy was moved from Rome to Avignon, France.) Heyligen sent his letter back home, where the plague had yet to hit in full force, giving advice to friends and family.

     "I am writing to you most dearly beloved so that you should know in what peril we are now living. If you wish to preserve yourself the best advice is that a man should eat and drink moderately and avoid getting cold and refrain from any excess -- and above all mix little with people unless it be with a few who have healthy breath. But it is best to stay at home until the epidemic has passed, as it is to be feared that in the end it will encircle the whole world . . . "

     I found this a curiously personal reminder that we are not the first, and we won't be the last, to suffer from a great pandemic. In fact, while the Black Death was at its most virulent when it first showed up in 1347, there were recurring outbreaks for another 200 years.

     And so if you're not disposed to heed the cautious advice about Corona from Governor Cuomo or Governor Wolf or Governor Brown, maybe you'll pay attention to the counsel sent out so long ago by the forlorn friar from Flanders.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

What's On Your Mind?

     Are you getting fed up with the Coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders and wearing masks and social distancing? Well, if you are, so are we.

     Yes, a roundup of Baby Boomer blogs starts with the pandemic -- how can it not? -- but then it goes on to the personal, the practical, the political and more.

     The Pandemic -- Carol Cassara realizes that everyone has responded to Covid-19 differently, but the root of their behaviors might not be so obvious. In her post Discovering Hidden Ways the Pandemic Is Impacting Us Cassara reveals some of her own sometimes-mysterious pandemic behaviors -- and what she discovered about where they actually came from.

Responding to pandemic
     The Personal -- For Laurie Stone of Musings, Rants & Scribbles, summer reminds her of Cape Cod. And Cape Cod reminds her of her grandmother Nana. In her essay Summer of Pineapple and Tuna Fish she reflects on a special time she spent with Nana on the Cape a long time ago.

     Another personal note. For the first time since 2004, B and I will not be vacationing on Cape Cod. The woman who owns our usual rental told us that because of Covid-19 her family decided not to rent the house at all this summer. So we are trying to do a different trip . . . more on that in an upcoming post.

     The Practical -- Rebecca Olkowski with BabyBoomster.com comes to the aid of any retiree who might want some extra income, or who is bored staying home with no work to do. She interviewed a business coach with the unlikely name of Winton Churchill who helps Baby Boomers work online and "earn from anywhere" as he puts it. Check out Become a Freelancer for some tips on how to profit from the gig economy, even if you're a retiree. And if you hang on until the very end you can catch the "almost" live stream of the interview itself.

     The Political -- Meryl Baer of Six Decades and Counting says we can't avoid  the political season, the hype is everywhere. She has been bombarded not only by the national ads but by local campaigns as well. In Primarily Voting from My Couch she summarizes a noteworthy local contest -- one that involves a very familiar name.

     The Price -- On The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide Rita R. Robison reminds us in Price Information About Funeral Costs that funeral homes are required to provide their price lists to consumers. Yet a 2018 investigation by the Federal Trade Commission found failures to disclose timely information in 20% of the funeral homes they visited. So you should know: Some funeral homes post price information on their websites; but whether they do or not, you should be able to get prices over the phone before you make funeral arrangements.

     The Pondering -- Jennifer Kolshak of Unfold and Begin says she has been pondering a lot of things lately. Some of us bloggers might relate to the latest issue she's considering: Do I Really Have a Niche-less Blog?

A real progressive
     The Philosophical. Kathy Gottberg on SmartLiving365 offers something different -- a vlog called Why Rightsizing Is More Important Than Ever. Tune in for the discussion she has with her husband about . . . well, like I said, it's philosophical, so it's about how to live your life.

     The Progressive. Finally, I think of myself as a progressive (with a small p), but not necessarily a part of the current capital-P Progressive political movement. Be that as it may, if you've been affected at all by Black Lives Matter and George Floyd and everything else, I'd recommend watching I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary about James Baldwin that is now available on Amazon Prime.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Social Security FAQs

     The last substantive change to Social Security occurred in 2015. That's when Congress eliminated the file-and-suspend and restricted-application strategies that gave married couples the opportunity to increase their lifetime benefits.

     But still, people often have questions about how the sometimes-complicated retirement system works, and how long it will be able to pay full benefits without some changes to the system. So here are a few Frequently Asked Questions, brought to us by Jeremy Kisner, Director of Financial Planning at Surevest Wealth Management in Phoenix, AZ. For those who are interested, he also writes a financially user-friendly blog called Clear and Concise Financial Advice.

     1. Can I collect benefits even if I continue working?
     Once you reach full retirement age, you can earn as much as you want without affecting your Social Security benefits  However, between age 62 and the year of your full retirement age you can only earn up to a certain threshold ($18,240 as of 2020) before benefits are reduced. For every $2 you earn above the threshold, your benefits are reduced by $1. But remember, only earned income from working counts towards the threshold. And also, if your benefit is withheld, Social Security will make it up to you with a higher monthly benefit after you reach full retirement age.

     2. How much are payments reduced when claiming retirement benefits early?
     They are reduced by approximately 0.555% for each of the 36 months you collect prior to full retirement age, and 0.416% for each month more than 36 months before full retirement age. So if your monthly benefit would be $1000 at full retirement age of 66, you would collect only $750 a month if you claimed benefits at age 62, for a 25% reduction.

     3. Are spousal benefits also reduced by the same amount for claiming early?
     Spousal benefits are actually reduced more. For example, claiming Social Security at age 62 would reduce the worker's benefit by 25%, but a spousal benefit by 30% -- or an average of 0.625% for each month prior to full retirement age.

     4. How much are benefits increased if I delay benefits until age 70?
     You accrue Delayed Retirement Credits which increase your benefits at a rate of 0.667 for every month you wait beyond your full retirement age. That works out to 8% per year simple interest.

     5. If I get married, am I immediately entitled to spousal benefits?
     No. You have to be married for one year before your are entitled to spousal benefits.

     6. What if my spouse dies prior to collecting benefits?
     You have to have been married for nine months to collect survivor benefits, and you have to wait until you are at least 60 years old (unless accidental death). There are also family benefits available to an unmarried child if one of their parents dies while the child in under 18., and spouses are also eligible to collect family benefits prior to age 60 if they are taking care of a child under 16.

     7. What happens to spousal benefits in the case of divorce?
     You can claim benefits on your prior spouse's record if you were married for at least 10 years, and are not currently remarried. It is not uncommon for two or more people to be claiming spousal benefits on one person's work record.

     8. Can I pay back benefits I collected prior to age 70, then get a higher payment as if I'd never collected?
     No. You used to be able to do this, but the option was eliminated in 2010.

     9. Are the ages of eligibility for benefits the same for widows and divorcees?
     Widows or surviving divorced spouses can claim survivor benefits at age 60. Divorcees can qualify for benefits at 62, even if the ex-spouse (age 62 or older) has not yet filed for benefits. You have to have been divorced for at least two years to file for benefits on an ex-spouses's record.

     10. What is now considered full retirement age?
     It depends on when  you were born:
     Year of birth       Full retirement age
     1942 or before          65
     1943 - 1954              66
     1955                         66 and 2 months
     1956                         66 and 4 months
     1957                         66 and 6 months
     1958                         66 and 8 months
     1959                         66 and 10 months
     1960 and after          67

     Bonus Question. Should I factor in the possibility that Social Security will go bankrupt in deciding when to start my benefits?
     Despite some reports to the contrary, Social Security is not in danger of going bankrupt. However, if no changes are made to the system, the trust fund (which has been built up over the years by collecting extra payroll taxes) will be depleted sometime around 2034. That's when benefits will have to be reduced -- by about 25% from their current level. There are ways to fix the system. But that's a topic for another post. Just one thing to keep in mind in this political season: If anyone is proposing a payroll tax holiday, that might put more money in workers' pockets, but it would also further deplete the Social Security system.

     Meanwhile, if you're interested in improving your own financial system, I can recommend Kisner's book A Good Financial Adviser Will Tell You ... from which these questions were drawn. And if you really want to get into the weeds, check out IRS Publication 915 for even more detailed information about Social Security benefits.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

What We've Learned

      I'm taking a course this summer through our senior learning center -- via Zoom, naturally -- that focuses on President Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

     The instructor set the stage by reviewing what was happening in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and how the world was so very different then. Participants in the class were encouraged to offer their own memories of the times -- including a woman who grew up in Boston as an ardent Kennedy supporter and a man who spent several years in the National Guard facing off against war protesters.

     We all acknowledged a few things about those days. For example, despite the general impression that the 1950s were a time of prosperity and conformity, and the 1960s a time of idealism and freedom, people who lived through that era actually had different experiences and held different points of view. Not everybody was a hippie. Not everyone attended a protest march. Not everyone took part in the sexual revolution.

     We also realized that people's memories are colored by later experiences. What we remember may not be how things actually happened. And we were young. We were more idealistic, more hopeful. The world was in front of us.

     So what have we learned in the past 50 years?

     For one thing, we all probably thought that we'd live forever, that we would always be young, that nothing would change. But life can and does move on. All things are temporary. Friends come and go; children grow up; jobs that once held meaning now seem irrelevant.

     We had friends in school who drifted away after we graduated. I remember going through the ritual of becoming "blood brothers" with my best friend in sixth grade. Friends forever. And we were . . . at least through high school. But we went to different colleges, followed different careers. We caught up at our 25th high-school reunion; but we haven't seen each other since.

     We've had friends from work who seemed important to us . . . until we weren't working there anymore. I'm reminded of the line from Fleetwood Mac: "Players only love you when they're playing."

     Now we know. Certain people are important in our lives . . . until they aren't. Maybe today that drives us to redouble our efforts to keep up with old friends. Or, maybe now that we're older, we don't feel as if we need as many friends. We no longer need to be "popular" or "cool" -- do we? Maybe it's enough to be with family, or just one or two best friends. Does life get smaller as we get older?

      We had dreams as kids. Did we go on to live those dreams? Develop new ones? How much did we compromise in order to keep a job, raise a family, or maybe live a life that our parents dreamed for us, rather than the one we dreamed for ourselves?

     We also know about the choices we've made, both the good and the bad. They've affected our careers, our relationships . . . and often our health. I think back to the days when I smoked cigarettes, at first because it was cool, and then because I was addicted. Now my reaction is: How could I have been so stupid?

     I've gotten away with it, so far. But sometimes I wonder if the stupidity of my 20s will end up killing me in my 70s.

     What I do know is that my old ankle injury from a car accident, and the knee injury from playing tennis, are coming back to haunt me. We do not all age at the same rate. Maybe it's our genes, or maybe our lifestyle, but some of us are healthy well into our 80s; while others are limping around in our 60s. But I'd venture to say that most of us have something going on to remind us that the body doesn't last forever.

     We also know that life offers no guarantees. Sometimes, when you least expect it, things can go terribly wrong. One day you're healthy, the next you're in the hospital. One day your friend, or your spouse, is alive. Then they're gone.

     Perhaps, by now, we've been cured of our addiction to ambition. Does it really matter so much that we did or didn't get that promotion, that our kids did or didn't get accepted to their first-choice college, that we maybe should have jumped at that opportunity to start our own business, or live overseas, or have another child? We know that life is not a race, it's a journey. We've moved past the disappointments. There will be good times, and bad times, and "this too shall pass."

     We also know -- as revealed in our memories of the '60s -- that people live under different circumstances and experience events in various ways. Perhaps we become more tolerant as we age, more understanding of those who have different points of view. We can "agree to disagree" with friends or family members, and maybe understand why they've chosen an unusual lifestyle, or hold onto ideals that don't make sense to us.

     Finally, I hope we can appreciate what poet Robert Frost wrote: "But I have promises to keep / and miles to go before I sleep." No matter what our age, we can make new friends, try new things, contribute to society, find meaning in family, and seek out joy in unexpected places.