Sunday, October 20, 2019

Crash Landing In Retirement, Revisited

Most people live in denial, particularly if they live in a retirement community.

Getting old isn't for sissies. Getting old is bad, until you consider the alternative.  Any day above ground is a good day.  You hear these aphorisms from old folks in retirement communities.  And they reflect the mentality - and fears - of the elderly.

Retirement isn't a single thing, but a series of stages.  At the first stage, you leave your job, get the gold watch and the retirement party, and then figure out what it is you are to do.  For many, this is hard, as they have no idea what to do, and cannot understand their own identity outside of the work environment.  When you've been an Assistant Vice President and Actuary for 30 years, it is hard to go back to just being, well, a person.

And many people discover they are living with a stranger.  The spouse you saw for a half-hour every morning when you were barely awake, and who sat next to you at the dinner table and while watching television, is now someone you are spending 24/7 with, and you may find out you really don't like them or at the very least, you have no idea who they are.

Most people get over this stage - if they experience it at all - and move on with life.  And often this means moving, too, to a less-expensive place to retire, or a retirement community with promises of an active life, or both.  Whatever the case, this first phase is a pretty happy one - people are in good health, and they find hobbies or sports or other activities to do, as well as socializing, and keep busy.

Older men, in particular, often start what I call "house polishing" - now that they have time to do it, they set out to create the perfect lawn, and fix all those little nagging things that have been bothering them around the house.  Or they put on an addition or add a swimming pool, or some other activity. Old people's houses - at this stage, at least - look immaculate.   That changes, drastically, with time.

Of course, not everything is copacetic.   In the second stage of retirement - which can occur, in some instances, days after retirement, but usually not for several years - is the health crises.  Long-neglected health issues come to the surface.   30 years of sitting at a desk, smoking cigarettes, and having a 5 o'clock cocktail (or two) and too many trips to the buffet, take their toll, and one spouse or the other has some sort of incident or another.   This sort of takes the edge off retirement, and it can affect your social life as well.

As I noted before, in the retirement community, you don't want to run out of money or get sick.  You become persona non grata in short order.  No one wants to be around a fellow retiree who cannot afford to join in with the activities of the others, or - worse yet - maybe ask fellow retirees for money.  I've seen this firsthand, and it ain't pretty.  Retirees can shun one another in a manner which would put the Amish to shame!

Similarly, losing your health is a death knell, if you'll pardon the pun.  Retirees don't want to be reminded of what can happen to them (which is another reason why running out of money will get you shunned).  You get sick, they view it as some sort of personal failing - even diseases which are not related to your own behavior (smoking, drinking, overeating, lack of exercise).   In my parents' generation, in particular, getting cancer - or "the Big C" as my Dad called it - meant you became a leper.  They stopped visiting you, and stopped inviting you to events - lest they catch cancer from you.  And this goes back to our wonderful religions, which for ages taught that infirmity was a sign of some personal failing, sin, or pissing-off God.

But presuming you recover from your medical crises, you might go back to stage one again, albeit a little sobered by the experience.  You realize this party doesn't go on forever.   But most people go right back to their old ways - often having health crises after another, each one a little worse than the previous one.

The last stage - the end game - is tricky.  For some, it comes suddenly. A neighbor complains of a headache and lays down to take a nap, and never wakes up, having a burst aneurysm.   Another has a massive heart attack and drives off the road.  Yet another has a stroke, falls down, and isn't discovered until the next day, when it is too late for treatment. There are fast-growing cancers discovered too late, such as pancreatic cancer.   In a way, these are the lucky ones - they didn't linger for months and years - sometimes a decade - and end up living in squalor, or in constant pain and confusion.

That is the real fear of retirees - the end game.  And most just say "La, La, La!" and maybe think deep down that it will never happen to them, or that they are the Methuselah and will live forever.  The slow departure is, of course, the worst, because often we don't see it happening to us, and we wait until it is too late to make plans or change our plans.

Dementia, chronic illnesses, and just plain getting old happen. You lose a little of your faculties every single day - and I see this already at age 60 or thereabouts.  I certainly can't do the things I did at age 50, and no way could I do the things I did at 40, or the heroic deeds I did when 25.   You get old, and everything hurts, not a lot, but a little bit.  And you get used to pain, over time, and move on.

If you could somehow quantify pain and transmit it to another person, it would be interesting.  If a 20-something had to experience the everyday aches and pains of his grandmother, he would likely scream in agony.  But that's just a theory of mine - there is no real way to quantify relative levels of pain.

Many, toward the end, end up moving "back home" as they often put it - away from the retirement community and closer to "family" which may comprise their children, grandchildren, siblings, or even nieces and nephews.   Perhaps 3/4 of the people here on retirement island do this - or they have a family member move in with them.  What they are afraid of, is, of course, losing their faculties and not being able to care for themselves. A younger family member can drive them to the store, and occasionally visit them and keep them company.  Old people can get lonely, particularly when they isolate themselves from others - which we see happen all the time, with some bruhaha being stirred up at the Parcheesi Club.

Once you start losing your faculties - which is such a gradual process it is hard to measure - you become vulnerable to all sorts of ripoffs and dangers.   Just as the wolves go after the older, lamer, and sick gazelles or deer in the herd, criminals often target the elderly as they are easy victims. They still answer the phone, and in their confused state, they will hand over their passwords or send money overseas, thinking that their Social Security number has been "suspended".

But according to some sources, it isn't just Nigerian scammers (or Indian scammers, as of late) who are trolling Grandma, but her own relatives.  And I have seen this firsthand.   Needy Niece shows up at Grandma's house to "hang out" and ask for small amounts of money (for drugs) and "borrows" jewelry from Grandma, "just for a week or so"   Or Nephew or Grandson asks Grandma to co-sign a loan so he can buy "a reliable car" to get to work.   Or perhaps a son or daughter decides to "help" Grandma with her finances, but first helps themselves.  This is a form of financial abuse which increasingly is a part of elder abuse.

But the logic of moving "closer to family" does make some sense - and in ways we'd rather not think about.  To most younger people, Grandma and Grandpa are "rich" and have "lots of money" even if all they have is a paid-for cottage, Social Security, and the remains of a small pension - as well as a paid-for late model car.  When all is said and done, the inheritance - divided by a half-dozen heirs - might not amount to much.  But junior figures he'd better be nice to the old folks, lest they write them out of their will (as my Dad did - hell is full of Dads!).   It is a sick little game, and no one in their conscious mind will admit to doing this.

Of course, George Carlin is now dead - and he was a Dad, too!

Of course, the real stinker is that you can suck up to Grandma all you want to, and she'll still write you out of the will, or leave the money to someone else - or there won't be much money there to begin with.  Mark's stepmother left a small inheritance, which was divided nine ways.  One of the heirs was hoping there was a enough money there to fund their own retirement.  But they didn't realize that the house was left to Mark and his siblings when his Father died, and the step-Mom only had a life estate.   Never count on an inheritance!

Again, no one likes to think about this in the front of their brain, but older people are quite adept at manipulating the younger.  How else do we get 18-year-olds to patriotically march into withering machine gun fire, to the tune of the National anthem?   You don't see old people doing that shit - and they've got a lot less to live for.  And no, it's not because they are using a walker, either.   They'd question the whole deal, having the wisdom to see how these things go down, over time.

So Grandma - subconsciously - gives the grandkids and her own kids, little tidbits of money, to get them coming back to visit Grandma time and time again - or drive her to the Safeway or the doctor's appointment now and again.   And this is something that your neighbors in the retirement community won't do, and something you'd have to pay someone to do if you still lived in retirement village.

And when the time comes and you can't even wipe your own ass, well, hopefully your children or other relatives will do the right thing and find you a nice "home" to live in where you won't be treated too badly. A sad thought, but one that goes through everyone''s mind, now and again, as they get older.

And of course, some elderly actually move in with their children in what are being called "in-law suites."  For some children, this seems like an attractive idea, as Grandma's Social Security check can help pay for household expenses, and she can provide free day-care for the grandchildren.   Not a bad deal for the grandchildren, either, as they are cared for by a family member.  A good plan, provided Grandma isn't the one needing babysitting herself.

So, I understand why many of my older friends move "back home" (which is an interesting way of putting it, when your "home" has been in retirement village for the last 20 years) to be "closer to family" (as it is often stated in obituaries).  The problem is, suppose you have no younger relatives to count on?   Oh, you are proper fucked for sure!

Some without children hope that a younger sibling will help them out in old age - and not kick the bucket before them.  Others hope that maybe a niece or nephew will "look after them" into their old age. It is the most difficult part of retirement to deal with - and not just the death part, but the awkwardness of figuring out what to do with your remaining handful of years.

I recounted before how a friend of mine, after a heart operation, was told to stay in "cardio rehab" but that the rehabilitation center was full.  They shunted him off to the County home, and he stayed there for an hour before he called and said, "Pick me up!  This place is a nightmare!"  And indeed, it was. But it was a learning experience for me - hopefully I never end up in such a place, and my sympathies go out to those who have to stay there - although most had no idea what day it was.  No one wants to end up there.

The problem, as I see it, is that these stages of retirement are pretty inflexible. So you need to plan ahead for them and not live in denial. If you are going to move somewhere, move to a house or apartment you can take care of, that is preferably all on one level, and has 36" wide doors.  It is not that you are going to be an invalid, but that there will be times in the future - perhaps the near future - where you may be temporarily invalided.

When my Mother died, my Dad remarried and moved to Colorado. They looked briefly at a two-bedroom apartment in a senior living center and then decided not to move there because "you could see the prison from there!" I think the real reason was they were in denial about aging.  So they bought a split-level home that had so many stairways in it that you had to go up or down a stairway just to get to the bathroom!  And as you might guess, my Dad had a health crises just then (quadruple bypass) and had to sleep in a cot in the garage after the operation as he couldn't negotiate the stairs.

Mark's Grandmother moved to a senior living center right after her daughter died. She realized - correctly - that she could not depend on her son-in-law and his new wife to care for her. So she sold them her old house and moved to Shellpoint.  The relatives were livid!  How dare you move to an "old folks home!" You're only 70!  You're too young to move there! But she wanted her independence, and not to be hassled with caring for a house - a house that she could visit anytime she wanted to.  Not only that, since she sold it to her son-in-law, she was assured they would come visit her with regularity.   Pretty smart lady!

Making a plan is key.  No one likes to think about their own mortality, but you should think about your own infirmity.  And over time, while "house polishing" seems like fun, you will end up capable of doing less and less, and the house will fall down around you - not all at once, but a little bit at a time.  You don't have the energy to keep up with the painting and minor repairs, cleaning the gutters, trimming the hedges, manicuring the lawn, and all that other stuff.  The house becomes dated, and before too long, the appliances are 25 years old and half of them aren't working.   Better to sell while the place is still serviceable than to wait until it is a tear-down or a gut-and-remodel, or worst of all, is condemned while you are still living in it.

We visited the Rosenbaum House, a Frank Lloyd Wright "Usonian" home in Florence, Alabama.  The city bought the house from Mrs. Rosenbaum when she was in her 90's, and the place was falling apart - infested with termites and the roof leaking and rotted.  When she finally sold the house to the City, she said "it was like a weight being lifted off my shoulders" and she died a few months later. She probably wanted to move away long before then, but felt trapped in a home that was such a unique part of her life.  They basically had to rebuild it from the ground up.

We have no plans to move anywhere right away.  But I can see already that "house polishing" is getting to be old hat.  It gets boring and tedious to work on house projects.  Mowing the lawn and gardening (the task of getting things that don't want to grow, to grow, and to get things that want to grow, to die) get old over time.  Laboring in the hot sun and humidity and being bitten by ticks and no-see-ums (the former which can transmit some nasty illnesses) gets really old, particularly as you get really old.  You realize that you want to do things in life, not own things.  What's the point of owning the "perfect garden" or the "perfect lawn" if no one else can appreciate them?   Want to see a nice garden?  There are plenty around you can visit, often for free or at a modest charge.

I can see that in five or ten years, we will want to move somewhere smaller.  Not that we will have to move but that we will want to move before we have to.  It is better to make these moves under your own power, to place of your own choosing, and enjoy and explore a new chapter in life, than to wait until you are forced to do so by circumstance.   We hope, once we have a smaller place, to have more time to travel and do things.  We used to laugh at the old people on those "elder bus tours" but the joke is on us - they are getting out and doing things, while I am mowing a lawn.

I mentioned this to some older friends of mine and they tsk-tsk'ed this. Bus tours?  That's for old people!  Not them!   She refuses to buy a toaster oven on the grounds that only "little old ladies" have those.   Well, ding-dong, get the door, it's toaster oven time.  Quite frankly, as you get older, you should cherish the ability to even own a toaster oven - its usually the first thing they take away from you at "the home" - the first time you set off the fire alarm and force an evacuation of the facility.  Toaster ovens are a privilege, not a right!

But again, pride goeth before the fall and people seek and chase status.  And among the elderly, status often takes the form of youth or at least the relative appearance of youth.  Denial of aging and death is not just a means of blocking these unpleasant thoughts from your own mind, but rather a means of status-seeking, by pretending to be young and active still, and unlike those "doddering old fools" who didn't live right or offended God or whatever they did wrong - getting old and all!  What a poor choice!

But I think denial of aging is a worse choice.   Make plans while you can - and make moves while you can.  If you wait too long, well, I've seen it happen and it ain't pretty.