"Change is never a smooth curve, it comes in leaps and jolts, plateaus and remissions." -- Alexandra Andrews, "Who Is Maud Dixon?"

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Stepping Ahead of Arthritis

    I have chronic osteoarthritis in my ankle and my knee, due primarily to old injuries. I've also had bouts of stenosis in my neck -- which is basically the same as arthritis. Then last year my back started bothering me. At first I tried to ignore it, but eventually I went to the doctor, and sure enough, he confirmed I have signs of arthritis in my lower spine as well.

     By the way, I blame my parents for my bad bones. My dad dealt with a back pain for as long as I can remember, and my mother got osteoporosis later in life. Also, I have two sisters. Both of them have had bone issues. One has had surgery on her foot and her shoulder. The other has two new knees.

     I have not gone under the knife myself. But over the years I've been through several regimens of physical therapy -- for my ankle, my knee, my neck, and now my back.

     I remember when I first had neck issues, I was given an exercise regiment which I did regularly -- until my neck stopped hurting. Then I stopped. Of course, the pain and numbness returned, and I had to go for more physical therapy. So now I've learned my lesson, and I'm pretty good about doing my prescribed exercises -- because they do seem to work, and there's no greater motivation for doing exercises than to avoid pain.

    Fortunately, my back exercises are similar to the ones I do for my knees -- so I kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. I do one session in the morning, and a "refresher course" of about ten minutes before  I go to bed.

     I like to play golf and ping pong. I've also played a little pickleball. When we're able to go out again in public -- after we all get our shots, maybe by summer -- I've been thinking of joining a pickleball group. So I asked the doctor if that would be okay. His basic response was, the best thing you can do is keep moving. So do anything, as long as it doesn't hurt -- although he did tell me not to run long distances (no danger of that), and suggested that biking and swimming are two great low-impact exercises that strengthen the legs and body. So I bike and swim when I can, but honestly, not too often.

     He also recommended over-the-counter pain medications. I took Naproxen (Aleve) for a while, but then I heard it can give you a heart attack or stroke or something. So now I take Ibuprofen (Advil) a couple of times a week when the ache doesn't go away -- or more lately Acetaminophen (Tylenol), since I read somewhere that Ibuprofen makes you more susceptible to Covid. I don't even know if that's true. But anyway, luckily, I have not felt the need to go on to anything more powerful.

     I've also tried CBD ointment on my knee and ankle. I think it might have helped a little, but it's hard to tell. It might just be the placebo effect.

      I'm always wondering if there's anything else I can do to slow down arthritis, to keep the pain levels down, maybe prevent it from popping up elsewhere in my body. There's a lot of advice about diet. The problem is that none of it is conclusive.

      Everyone agrees that eating plenty of vegetables, especially broccoli and cauliflower and spinach, is good for arthritis, as well as virtually every other health issue we might have. We're supposed to consume lots of fiber, and restrict intake of salt and sugar. People disagree about milk and milk products -- although nobody thinks eating a lot of cheese is a good idea. But that may be as much for its fat and salt content as its milk content.

     The truth of the matter is that you can't eat your way out of arthritis. There's really no "cure." Pain killers might help. Surgery can work in the most severe cases. But for most of us the best medicine is exercise. Stretching for sure, as well as light-to-moderate, low-impact movement like swimming, walking, biking. And . . . by summer I hope to put pickleball on the list.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Remember Inflation?

     B came home the other day and said to me, "Gas prices are way up again. I paid over $3 a gallon!"

     We've gotten used to a low gasoline prices for the past year, ever since they plummeted due to the pandemic. But I checked. B is right. Gas prices have gone up -- by 15% in the last month alone. And today they are 3% higher than this time last year.

     Then we got a notice from our town. We were told that due to Covid, which has caused town expenses to go up and revenues to go down, our town taxes are increasing 12% this year. 

     The school tax has edged up just 2%. But that's still higher than the general inflation rate of 1.4% as reported by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. And with all the pressures that schools are under, I wouldn't be surprised if 2021 brings a much larger increase.

     Fortunately, our Social Security benefit is adjusted for inflation, at least by some measures. We got a 1.3% increase for 2021. But some of that extra money got stripped away by a 2.7% increase in Medicare premiums.

     Food prices are up. I read that chicken prices are 20% higher than last year. Meanwhile, the price of plastic is 8% higher, raising the cost of virtually every packaged good we buy.

     And I hope you don't want to buy a house. According to the most recent Case-Shiller report the price of the average home in the U. S. is up by 10.4%  from Dec. 2019 to Dec. 2020.

     Inflation has been low for a number of years. It is possible we've been lulled into a false sense of complacency?

     Inflation can have a big impact on retirees, since many of us live on fixed incomes. And even though we no longer have to feed a family or save for a child's high-priced college education, we still have to cover food, housing and medical bills. As an example, if the inflation rate goes to 3% and stays there, our costs will go up by 16% over five years and 34.5% over ten. So ten years from now that $3 gallon of gas will set us back a little over $4, and everything else we buy will cost a third more.

     Of course, you might think . . . ten years from now, who cares? But assuming Covid doesn't kill us, a lot of us will be around not just for another ten years, but for 15 or 20. Today, the average 70-year-old  lives to age 85 -- and one in five of us will live past age 90. So we need to consider our financial lives well into the future.

     For example, you might want to check your pension. Many pensions are not adjusted for inflation, but some are. If you have a pension, it would be good to know if your payment is tied to inflation, so you can modify the rest of your life accordingly.

    You might also want to bring up the issue with your financial adviser, if you have one. In the meantime, you should know that if you have an annuity, or invest in bonds, the higher the inflation rate the more you lose out. On the other hand, stocks (or ETFs or mutual funds) in your 401K or IRA will generally go up along with inflation -- unless we hit a period of hyperinflation like we did in the 1970s. Commodities like gold -- and yes, evil oil -- tend to outperform during inflationary times. Maybe bitcoin, too. I don't know. I wouldn't know what to do with a bitcoin.

     Real estate rises along with inflation, so owning your own home is a good hedge against inflation. (See the 10.4% increase in home values cited above.) Rental property also pays off during inflationary periods since you can usually raise the rent. But remember, when you're a landlord you're not truly retired. Managing real estate takes time and attention, and not everyone thinks it's worth the trouble.

      You can always fight inflation by downsizing. You can sell off a second car, or move to a community with a lower cost of living. Or you can decide not to travel. We're now looking at a rental place for next winter in South Carolina -- the same place we've rented twice before. The quoted price is $1,500 a week -- which is 5% more than last year's price (when we didn't go) and 12% (gulp!) higher than what we paid when we were there in 2019.

     Or you could always get a job. Unlike pensions, wages and salaries often increase with inflation and so employees are carried along on the inflation ride. But I don't know about you. I'm retired. I don't want to have to go back to work just to buy chicken or pay the town tax.

     However, we'll have to see about that vacation. I'd hate not to be able to go on vacation.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Cure for Stress

     Right now the best cure for stress is the Covid vaccine. Several people have told me recently that they hadn't even realized they were suffering from stress, but as soon as they got their shot they felt the weight of anxiety fall off their shoulders. Suddenly they could breathe.

     But if you're like me, and haven't been able to get a shot yet, you're still feeling the stress. There's stress from the self-isolation that has just . . . gone . . . on. . . too . . . long. And stress from waiting for the vaccination . . . and waiting . . . and waiting . . . and waiting.

     I counted up. I am on six different lists to get a shot. But so far nothing has come through. I just sit here, waiting, feeling like I have no control over the situation.

     Stress can cause a lot of problems. I remember in the few years before I retired, when my company was stumbling and losing profits and laying off people, I suffered from a pinched nerve in my neck, causing pain and numbness in my arm. I had to go to physical therapy and once even had to wear one of those neck collars.

     As soon as I left work, those problems went away. No more stress, no more pinched nerve.

    So now in the face of Covid I along with everyone else have been trying to keep the stress at bay. How do we do it?

     A lot of people turn to meditation and mindfulness. Honestly, I'm not too big on meditation. I don't do yoga. But I can still do things to calm my mind, to focus on the present and stop worrying about things I can't control. So I try to carve out 15 minutes a day to just relax and breathe and release the tension in my muscles. It works, at least sometimes.

     I also know that exercise is a good antidote to stress. My usual forms of exercise -- golf and table tennis and occasionally swimming -- are closed off to me these days. About the only thing left to do is take a walk. I'm not an enthusiastic walker or hiker. I just don't find it that interesting. But when I do take a walk, every two or three days, it clears my mind and makes me feel better. I should do it more often.

     Stretching is another stress reducer. I got in the habit of stretching when I had my neck problem. To this day I'm pretty good about keeping a regimen. I do a short set after my daily shower working on my back and legs, and another set before I go to bed to ease out the kinks in my neck and shoulders.

    We all know that having a strong social support system helps us deal with stress. I'm lucky to have B. But I also look forward to my Zoom calls, when I feel engaged with other people's lives. The same goes for my senior classes. I'm taking a history class on the Civil War. It's interesting, informative, and certainly does put my own problems into perspective. Same with my discussion group and my book group -- we talk about issues larger than ourselves, and the sharing of ideas and experiences always makes our own worries seem a little more manageable. 

     I also try to eat a good diet -- go easy on the sugar and drink plenty of water. This is easier for me in the winter, since my weakness is ice cream, and even I don't want to eat ice cream when there's snow on the ground. I try to have a good breakfast -- orange juice, fruit, oatmeal or other high-fiber cereal -- and B keeps me on the straight and narrow at dinnertime. She goes easy on the meat; and no meal is served without at least one green vegetable, and sometimes two. 

     The effects of stress are cumulative, so it makes sense that we're more stressed now than we were back in he spring or summer. But reducing stress also has a cumulative effect. The more we consciously manage the stress, the better we get at it and the better we feel. So we'll get through this without going crazy or having a heart attack or turning to alcohol or drugs.

     After we get the vaccine we still have to be careful -- wash hands, wear masks, keep our distance when we can -- but at least we'll know that we're doing something that makes a difference. That in itself mitigates the stress.

     I read that as of Thursday more than 50 million doses of vaccine had been administered in the U. S. So it can't be that long before they get to me, can it?

Sunday, February 14, 2021

What's in a Word?

      Some people find inspiration in choosing a "word of the year" to guide them or focus their energies. I came across a word this past week that provides no guide, but does seem to describe our current reality. The word is acedia.

     Acedia means "laziness, or lack of interest or caring." The word -- and the emotion -- goes back as far as ancient Greece. Later, in the 5th century, the monk John Cassia considered acedia a deadly sin. He described how the feeling could overwhelm a colleague who "cannot stay still in his cell, or devote any effort to reading." He feels "such body listlessness and yawning hunger as though he were worn by a long journey or a prolonged fast . . . Next he glances about and sighs that no one is coming to see him. Constantly in and out of his cell, he looks at the sun as if it were too slow in setting."

     I don't know about you, but lately I've been feeling just like the monk in his cell.

     Yet our Baby Boomer bloggers resist the temptation toward the word acedia. For Carol Cassara her word instead might be within. In this week's post Looking Within she focuses on how we allow life events to touch and change us, and urges us to "inhabit our truth" and stand firm in what's important to us.

     Laurie Stone of Musing, Rants & Scribbles might choose the word mirage. "It always starts innocently," she says. "I'm minding my own business on Facebook when it appears on the sidebar. Like a mirage in the desert the object shimmers on the edges, enticing and beckoning. That shirt I pined for last month, but never found, is there in the perfect fit and color." She doesn't need it. But her hand hovers over the mirage . . . and so in 5 Ways Amazon Doesn't Play Fair she once again realizes that "they know what I want before I do." 

     Rebecca Olkowski would probably turn to hippie as her word. She asks:  What were you doing during the Summer of Love? One of her friends, who was living in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury at the time, recently published a memoir about her experiences. Check out the book Natural Born Guilt to follow her tragicomedy from happy to hippie to hooked.

     Rita R. Robison, consumer and personal finance journalist, picks scam. She reminds us that, pandemic or no, we must watch out for scammers who want to steal our identity by posing as a government official or pulling an online shopping trick. In FTC's Fraud List for 2020 she reveals that some 2.2 million people reported scams to the Federal Trade Commission. She lists the biggest fraud categories and offers a website where you can report suspicious activity.

     For Jennifer of Untold and Begin the word is art. Last week she enjoyed an immersive Van Gogh experience at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, FL. And now in her post How Does One Become a Painter? she offers a revelation about how we all can become better at our craft.

     Finally, for Meryl Baer the word is surely shot. She says it's hard to believe that we are closing in on one year of Covid-19 restrictions. In Scenes from a Pandemic-Restricted Life she offers a few glimpses of how the pandemic has altered our lives . . . including the highlight of her week which involved an hour's drive to a fire-training center to get a shot in her arm.

     And so as we line up for our vaccinations, and the world slowly opens up, perhaps we can all think of a more hopeful, more positive word than acedia for 2021.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Are You Feeling Stressed?

     One great benefit of retirement is a lower level of stress. Or at least it has been in my experience, both for myself and my friends.

     I remember shortly after I got "packaged out" of my company I had lunch with a former colleague who had left the company about a year before I did. His new life was now all set, he said. He was happily married, the kids were grown up and out of the house, his mortgage was paid off. He and his wife enjoyed a couple of modest pensions as well as subsidized medical insurance, and they had a rental property in Vermont that brought in some additional income.

     He acknowledged that his income was lower than it had been. But he slept better because he didn't have worries that jangled through his mind and kept him up at night, and he never felt the dread he sometimes faced when he got up in the morning before work. Instead, now he had time to exercise and eat right -- he'd lost about 15 pounds -- and he could actually relax and read a book after breakfast or before dinner. "I'm healthier and happier than I've been in 30 years," he told me.

     In my own case, I know that I eat more when I suffer from stress -- they don't call it comfort food for nothing -- and I tend gain weight. During my last years at work I pushed the scale up over 200 pounds. Then, when the real stress appeared, I suffered a pinched nerve in my neck, which brought tingles and sometimes numbness down my left arm. I had three different episodes in my last five years at work. I did three bouts of physical therapy and once even had to wear one of those next collars, day and night, for several weeks.

     My last episode occurred just a few months before I left work. Since then I have not had one problem with my neck or my arm. I do my exercises -- because I have the time to do them -- and since I'm so much more relaxed -- and spend less time chained to a desk -- I simply haven't had any issues with my neck. And, by the way, I now weigh 15 pounds less than I did during my last year at work.

   But the stress has been rebuilding over the last year. Hasn't it? I'm not stressing over money or a job (although I do worry about my kids). But I'm stressed about being imprisoned at home with only electronic means for human contact. Many of my routines have been canceled -- like table tennis and dancing -- and of course any travel plans have been completely destroyed. I'm supposed to spend the month of February on a South Carolina beach. Instead I'm shivering in snow-covered Pennsylvania!

     Of course, we've made accommodations to our new situation. We don't go out to restaurants; but we do take a walk into town just to see some lights and some other human beings. Many of our activities are going strong on Zoom. But it's Zoom, not live action.

     We recently found an app called Readeo which gives us the opportunity to read books with our one-year-old grandchild. She got the gist of the first one, about a duck. The second one, on snow, didn't seem to interest her. But even as we try to make the best of things, the experience is nothing like sitting your grandchild on your lap and smiling at her and playing with her, and then getting her to turn the pages as you read and act out the story. 

     But what brings on the stress, for me especially, is the lack of control, the lack of information, the seemingly lack of care or cooperation from the authorities. I live in Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania is among the worst states in the country for the rollout of the Covid vaccine.

     I realize it's a difficult job. But that doesn't explain why every contiguous state to Pennsylvania -- all six of them -- are getting vaccine into people's arms at a lot faster rate than we are.

     We got an "official" announcement to register with the county -- but there is no information except that they are still vaccinating health-care workers and residents of long-term care facilities.

     I received an email from my doctor's office:  "We are prioritizing patients who are 75 and older. Once these patients have been scheduled, we will move to the next group -- which will include you. We will notify you directly when the vaccine is available. This make take several weeks. We have 1,508 patients over age 75. At present we only have the availability to schedule 140 appointments per week with the current vaccine supply levels."

     So do the math. At this rate it will take ten weeks, until the end of April, before they even begin to get to my group. 

     Then I heard a rumor. One of my fellow CLR instructors told us he called St. Lukes Hospital. He left a message; someone called him back in an hour; and now he has his vaccine shot scheduled for this afternoon.

     So I called St. Lukes, gave them my age, address, email and phone number. Someone did actually call me back. She informed me that the Hospital is currently vaccinating only people 75 and over. She registered me, but couldn't tell me how long before I would be eligible. The vaccine arrives in spurts, she said. So it could be few days, or it could be a few weeks. There's no way to tell.

     That's pretty vague. But at least I now know someone is listening to me, registering my interest -- instead of communicating with a computer and thinking you're just being dumped into a black hole.

     So today my stress levels are down a little bit. No doubt, they will go up again. April is a long time away. I'll probably be gaining  few more pounds.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

"I'm Mad as Hell. . ."

      I'm an optimist. I usually focus on all the progress the world has made during our lifetime. The end of the Cold War. The spread of literacy. The decrease in poverty. The decrease in racial and sexual discrimination. The increase in life expectancy. Advancements in science and medicine.

     But sometimes, just sometimes, you see the other side of the coin.

     The other day I ran across a post on Reddit, a social media outlet targeted toward Millennials, in connection with a spike in certain stocks on Wall Street. I don't know if you paid attention -- but smaller companies like Gamestop were bid up by a group of individuals from social media, and the phenomenon was billed as a kind of revolt against Wall Street. The situation quickly passed. It was just a media-hyped fad. But I think a significant Millennial sentiment was captured by an ER doctor who wrote an open letter to Wall Street:

     When I was a resident physician in Detroit, Obama was president. During his presidency the quality of life of the predominantly African Americans in Detroit did not improve. Despite Obamacare, I saw little improvement in the health outcomes of the patients I worked with. I saw continued proliferation of illicit drugs, overdoses, and gang violence. YOU have left these people behind.

     I spent the last several years working in a small town in the Midwest, when Trump was president. During his presidency the quality of life of the predominantly white Americans also did not improve, and have in fact worsened. I saw continued proliferation of illicit drugs, overdoses, and suicides. These patients I care for are also people YOU have left behind.

     With the pandemic I have seen those who are already at the brink of financial solvency lose their jobs and I see lines outside food banks. I see the health outcomes of my patients decline as they forego preventive care. I, on the other hand, kept my job, got a raise, and saw the value of my 401K rise as the economy crashed around me. Going to work every day is a constant and stark reminder of the brokenness and disparity of the economic system and my sheer powerlessness to change it. I realize now that it is not political. It is YOU.

     This brought home to me the reality that I have not suffered at all financially from the pandemic. My Social Security deposit arrives on time. My IRA balance has only gone up. And since I'm spending less, I actually have more money in the bank -- even though my wife and I sent extra contributions to various charities during December.

     The pandemic has impacted our children to some extent. But not that bad. One actually got a new job, with an increase in salary. One is able to work from home, at full salary, and is saving the time and money of commuting. One did get furloughed for several months in the spring. But he's back to normal now.

     Do I feel guilty that the pandemic hasn't impacted me as negatively as others -- that my IRA keeps going up as so many other people are suffering? No, I don't. Do I feel lucky? Yes, I do.

     There's a lot of irony is this "revolt." First, it didn't come from the poor and disadvantaged. It came from middle-class people who had the time and money to speculate in the stock market. Also, there was a tinge of nostalgia about the whole thing. The Reddit crowd didn't bid up shares of Apple or Amazon. They plowed into Gamestop, AMC theaters, Blackberry, Nokia and other struggling companies that were popular back in the 1990s. The Millennials must think that things were better back then when they were growing up. But don't we all think that to some extent?

     Was this physician right to blame Wall Street for all these problems? Maybe . . . but Wall Street was just as big and powerful in the '90s as it is now. Is it the political system? Is it big tech? Or should he blame his complacent, self-satisfied Baby Boomer parents?

     Beyond the blame, what can we do that neither Obama nor Trump could do repair our economic system? To help lift the despair felt by so many that leads to taking illicit drugs and committing suicide? To give people more opportunity . . . and perhaps even more importantly to rekindle the feeling that the future is brighter than the past?