Sunday, October 9, 2011

Throw Momma From The Train!

What will happen when you get too old to take care of yourself?  Will someone else step in and take care of you?  And will you be happy with the decisions they make?  Being proactive in this regard is probably a good idea.  But few people make plans for the inevitable.

One thing is certain in life, and that is death.  If you are lucky, you will live to an old age and enjoy a nice retirement, before age and infirmity take hold and slowly make you sicker and sicker until you die.  If you are really lucky, you might suddenly die in your sleep.  Few of us are that lucky.

It is not fun to think about - so most people chose not to - but you will likely reach some point in your life where you will be found babbling on the front lawn, or you will have a stroke or heart attack, or you will be found living in your own squalor.  And at that point, someone will have to intervene on your behalf and make decisions about your life.  And it ain't pretty when it happens.

Living here on Retirement Island, we see this all the time - illness, dementia, or just plain old age.  And in most every case, it is a messy and expensive affair.  And it need not be so - with a little planning.

In the typical scenario, Mom and Dad retire to their retirement house and enjoy life for a few years or even a decade or more.  But then one of them gets sick and dies, leaving the other to fend for themselves.  Men fare worse - often dying within months or a year after their wives die.  Women do better, apparently needing men less in their lives - and they often live for a decade or more.

But when the remaining spouse finally needs to "go into the home", things get ugly.  First of all, since the house is now run-down and in poor condition, it does not fetch a very high market price.  And second of all, since the child or other next-of-kin needs to dispose of the house in a hurry (to pay for the rest home costs) the house is sold quickly at fire-sale prices.  This is not an optimal outcome for the sale of what is often the largest asset in any retiree's portfolio.

But wait, it gets worse.  Since the remaining spouse is usually Non Compos Mentis, someone else usually has to be appointed guardian, usually a child or relative.  And the job of guardian is a thankless one.  The remaining spouse will tell everyone that the guardian is stealing from them, or "putting them in a home" when in fact they are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves - they just got confused is all.

So here you are, half out of your mind, your estate being squandered, and your final years being spend in some sort of nursing home that you did not choose.  And worse yet, you have no say in the matter.

And this is not some far-fetched possibility, but a very real one, and in fact a likely one.  And yet few people - even people in their 70's and 80's even like to think about this and make plans.  After all, we are a death-denying society, and if not "but for" some disease or other cause, we all would be Methuselahs.  

But such is not the case.  I always get a chuckle when someone says it was "such a shame" that old Joe passed on at age 95 - as if it were some sort of tragic anomaly.  A "shame"?  Hardly.  We should all hope to live so long!  The best we can hope for, in life, is to be comfortable, happy, and have love in our lives.  But for so many in America, it seems that denying mortality is the name of the game - and in fact, to admit to being mortal is bad - after all, that is not "Pro Life".

There are other choices, however.  A friend of mine's Grandmother, at age 68, sold her house to her son-in-law and moved into a retirement community, purchasing an apartment with "lifetime care".  Many in her family criticized this move as too premature.  After all, she was only 68, right?

However, the apartment was far easier for her to keep clean and take care of than an old house.  And the community was anything but a prison camp.  I actually visited it by boat once - they have a marina there, and a golf course, and many of the younger residents (minimum age, 55) use it as a winter home.

But as you age, they have facilities for assisted living - and services that cater to the older and more infirm.  There are no messy decisions to be made down the line - it is all taken care of for you, and you get to choose, ahead of time, where you will spend those final months or years of your life.

And it was a kindness to her family, as they did not have to worry about Grandma falling and breaking her hip, trying to haul groceries in from the garage.  And they did not have to make messy decisions about her life.  And it also optimized her financial outcome as well.

So why do so few people plan for this?  Again, we are a death-denying society, and we do not want to think about our own mortality.  So most people foist this decision onto their children, and it is a real burden to them.  When parents die or become infirm, all sorts of family baggage quickly rises to the surface - everything from sibling rivalries to petty jealousies to emotional and physical abuse.

And for many oldsters, "staying in the home" for as long as possible is a means of asserting "independence" - even if it means squandering your estate through a reverse mortgage or the like.  In Florida and here on Retirement Island, you see the results of "staying in the home" - horribly outdated and run-down houses with old people rattling around in them, no longer capable of caring for themselves.

And oldsters like this often end up scammed and conned out of their money - by crooked home repair scams, or by telemarketers browbeating confused oldsters into giving up their ATM card numbers and PINs.

My goal, in the next 10 years, is to start to identify potential places to retire to, and to think about moving to such a place before I have to.  I do not have children or younger siblings to rely upon to "put me in the home" when the time comes.  And it gets messy when the Sheriff has to be sent out to put away some oldster found babbling on the front lawn (and yes, it happens).

It is better to be proactive and make a choice when you can, rather than to deny reality and leave such choices to others.  Because choosing not to decide is still making a choice, albeit a bad one.