April 23, 2018

Getting and Giving Help: Turn To Your Friends

      Recently, I asked fellow blogger, Jean Potuchekfor permission to rerun a November, 2016 post from her blog, Stepping Into The Future: A Retirement JournalJean has been single and living alone for more than 40 years, so she has the experience to address this subject much better than I do. Also, she is a sociologist who has done research on singles, and is currently in the process of organizing a local support group for “solo seniors,” those who are negotiating aging without a spouse/life partner, children, or family nearby.

      I thought her perspective would be a perfect addition to my ongoing education. 

I recently joined a Facebook group for “elder orphans” – older people without spouses, partners or children. This is a closed group with moderated discussion, and it’s a cut above the usual social media experience. The group discussions are thoughtful and passionate and focus primarily on problems and issues that older singletons regularly face.

Many of the discussions focus on the importance of friendship networks for “elder orphans.” In the words of the Beatle song, we all “get by with a little help from [our] friends.” But those who have lived alone for years have often developed a habit of independence that makes it difficult to ask for help, and those who are newly alone (e.g., recently divorced or widowed or with grown children who only recently moved away) may not have learned yet how to rely on friends instead of family. In this post, I want to share what I have learned over the years about getting help from friends.
  • To get help, you have to ask for help. Don’t expect friends to just notice what you need and provide it for you. Most people like to help others (within limits). Years ago, a psychotherapist asked me how I felt when others asked me for help. “It makes me feel good,” I said. “It makes me feel needed.” “Then why,” she asked, “are you so determined to deprive other people of that good feeling?” It was an important lesson for me.
  • Spread your requests for help around so that you are not asking one or two friends to meet all your needs. I remember one friend who needed a lot of emotional support after a cancer diagnosis. She would glom onto a particular friend and then call that person 5-10 times a day and often wanted the friend to come spend the night at her house. She was burning out her friends at an alarming rate. Friends will find it hard to be helpful if they feel overwhelmed.
  • In order to spread out your requests for help, you need an extensive friendship network. A good network of supportive friends may include some close, emotionally intense friendships, but it also needs to include a larger circle of less intense relationships. One widow of my acquaintance who has been looking to make a few close friends asked “Do I really need more casual friendships?” The answer is yes!
  • Ask people for kinds of help that they are able to give. If they can’t give the kind of help you are asking for, but offer some other kind of help that you could use, say yes and look elsewhere for help with your first request. One member of the Elder Orphans group posted about a sibling who had asked her not to send him a text message first thing every morning. She took this as evidence that he didn’t care whether she was dead or alive. But I found myself looking at this request from the brother’s point of view. I savor mornings of solitary calm as my favorite part of the day. I would experience a request to respond to another person’s text message first thing each morning as oppressive.
  • Many of us find it difficult to ask for help and then get a response of no. We can feel unreasonably rejected and unloved. One way I have learned to handle this is to send out group email messages asking for a particular kind of help and then letting those who can volunteer their assistance. When I had to get to a series of chemotherapy treatments 30 minutes’ drive away from home, I sent out an email to a large group of friends and co-workers asking for help with transportation. So many volunteered that I was able to have different people drive me to and pick me up from each of my six treatments. Word of my cancer diagnosis had spread quickly through my workplace and people were very grateful to be given some way to help. And because I wasn’t dependent on any one person, I was able to retain some sense of control.

Friendship is, by definition, a relation of reciprocity and equality. This means that, in order to get help from friends, you must give help to friends. Ideally, you will have developed some of these relationships of mutual support before you really need them.
  • Offer to help, even before people ask. When I learned that a friend was having day surgery, I asked if she needed transportation. It turned out that she had already asked another friend for that help; but the fact that I offered makes it easier for her to ask me for another favor or for transportation in the future.
  • Put yourself out a little to help others. It’s sometimes tempting to say “no” when filling a request for help is inconvenient; but if you never inconvenience yourself to help others, they will have no reason to inconvenience themselves to help you.
  • Be sure to ask others what it is they need. It’s fine to suggest something, but don’t just assume that the other person wants what you would want in that situation. You might think that nothing would be more wonderful than having friends take turns to provide home-cooked meals for the first two weeks after a hospital discharge; but your friend might be looking forward to cooking and eating her own favorite foods.
  • We can’t help others unless we also take care of ourselves, so sometimes we need to set boundaries on the help we offer. When I saw my very needy friend with the cancer diagnosis burning through her friends one at a time, I knew that I needed to protect myself from the same fate. So I made an offer: I would be happy to set aside one half-day per week to spend with her, doing whatever she wanted to do. She chose Saturday afternoons, and for several months, I spent every Saturday afternoon with her. Sometimes, if she was recovering from a chemotherapy treatment, I just sat and read while she napped. Sometimes we went out for a walk or a shopping trip. One of her work colleagues used our arrangement as a model to set up an online sign-up where friends could volunteer for times to visit with her. In this way, he managed to ensure that she had company every day of the week without burning anyone out.
  • Try to reciprocate the help you get from others how and when you can. One friend of mine with a heart condition that prevents her from shoveling snow bakes favorite confections for the neighbor who shovels the sidewalk in front of her house after he does his own. A friend who is no longer able to drive periodically treats the friend who does her weekly grocery shopping and his wife to dinner out at a nice restaurant. By doing what she can, she maintains the reciprocity that is at the heart of friendship.

Thank you, Jean for your insight and willingness to share. While her focus is on singles, the suggestions above can work for any of us, regardless of our status.

Please give Stepping into the Future a visit. 

April 19, 2018

Managing Your Time: Do You Schedule or Go With The Flow?

Time management during retirement is an important topic. For some of us, we like to go with the flow. Our day evolves with minimal preplanning. What fits our mood or suddenly becomes available is what is do. Certainly, the basics happen on a regular schedule. But, overall, our daily calendar is a minimalist's dream.

Others would find that approach bothersome. Time is a priceless resource. We don't schedule every minute of the day, but we have certain activities and goals that make the grade. Letting things simply unwind would never cross our mind.

I am an interesting (some might say, odd) mix of the two. After 17 years of retirement, I have tried all sorts of approaches to my day. My natural tendency is to schedule everything: alarms that tell me when to take pills, when to go on a walk, when to water the pots, write a blog post, food shop, Even nap times have been determined ahead of time. 

I tried the unscheduled, "what will be will be," approach. Except for a doctor, barber, or repair people visits, I woke free of anything specific to accomplish that day. Not surprisingly, that was a bust. It drove me crazy. I'd realize it was late afternoon and I hadn't done anything "productive." 

Now, I am four weeks into an experiment that is an attempt to blend the two. Since my energy and productivity are highest before lunch I do things that require functioning brain cells or energy: writing a blog post, working on my next book, or food shopping with Betty. I don't schedule specific times, just certain activities.

The time from lunch to dinner  is for things that require less of me: reading, working on a hobby, yard work, Twitter promotion. This is also when I give myself an energy kick in the butt by going to the gym or bike-riding. Again, I don't set a timer, rather just hope to accomplish each by dinner (notice how everything is determined by when I eat!)

After dinner, I leave free for some time watching Netflix shows with Betty, more reading, listening to music, and time with a different hobby. Occasionally we have a concert, play or other activity that requires leaving home. 

So far, so good. I don't feel either over or under scheduled. I don't feel "unproductive" or wasteful of my time. I do think it makes sense to match my energy level with what I do and when I do it.

What about you?  Are you a believer in scheduling your day, knowing that once gone, time is gone? Or, did you leave that approach back at work when you walked out the door? Now, each day is a buffet; you will choose what is best for that day and your mood? 

I am a month into my latest attempt to make the best of use of my satisfying retirement - not too late to take a great idea from you and give it a try.

April 16, 2018

Dealing with Dad: How Did We Cope After Mom Died?

Dad meeting his youngest granddaughter

Caregiving is a topic that concerns most of us. We usually don't look forward to the obligations and responsibilities of taking care of someone else, but we know that is likely to happen. Either a parent, spouse, partner, relative, or friend is going to need our help at some point. Just as possible, we are going to be the recipient of caregiving from someone else.

This topic was raised several times in the recent post, Where does this retirement blog go from here? As one in a series of responses to your interest, today I will focus on what the caregiving experience was like for me and my wife, Betty, after my mom died and we were responsible for my dad's situation. 

Up front comes an important disclaimer. My parents lived in a CCRC, or Continuing Care Retirement Community. That meant they had a full range of services, from prepared meals, to home nursing care, and full nursing center services if needed. Betty and I were not tasked with the daily feeding, cleaning, and monitoring of dad's condition. I am quite aware that our experience in caregiving was much less stressful than it might have been if dad couldn't afford such a level of care. 

Mom died in December, 2010. At that point my parents had been married for 63 years. The only time they weren't together was when dad went on business trips. He was completely devoted to mom, so much so, that sometimes it was hard to tell where her personality stopped and his began. We fully expected dad to die not long after mom. He was so connected to her that life as a single was almost impossible to imagine.

Well, surprise, surprise. Dad spent over four years on his own, seemingly happy and not outwardly depressed over mom's death. While he was one of the least social people you might ever meet, he had an acquaintance or two, dined with those people every day and read at least a book a week. Because mom loved to watch the Phoenix Suns, he continued to do so for a few years, finally giving that habit up two years before his death. He did watch the evening news on a TV that had more more green than other colors, but refused the offer of an upgrade to a newer set several times. He wasn't a music listener or movie watcher, so how he filled his days is still a bit of a mystery.

Betty and I had a few duties as his caregiver that became increasingly important each year after mom's death. He really looked forward to our weekly lunches together. Though he rarely talked, he was genuinely pleased we were sitting at the table with him. Every once in a while he'd agree to leave the property for lunch at a restaurant, but he didn't like leaving his comfort zone very often, so we stopped suggesting it.

As his memory declined, I took over his financial and tax matters. For a time he wanted to know what I was doing. Eventually, he stopped asking, trusting me to protect his interests. That was an important part of our taking care of him. Mom had been the bill payer, dad wasn't comfortable with all of that. 

Three years before his death we convinced him to give up the car. He had no need for one. He was starting to get lost driving to and from our house and his. I convinced him that he was putting his financial future at risk if he caused an accident. Plus, his granddaughter needed a car. By giving it to her he felt good that he could help her out.

Of course, that meant Betty or I would have to take him to all doctor appointments and to the grocery and drug stores for his pills and food supplies. That wasn't a major inconvenience, though it did require some serious planning when we had a month or two RV vacation scheduled. But, the tradeoff of him not driving was worth it.

Dad was seemingly healthy on the morning of March 7,2015. He had breakfast and lunch at his usual table. By dinner time he was gone, found on the floor of his room. Medical folks assured me his passing was quick and probably painless.

Caregiving shifted to funeral arrangements and cleaning out his apartment. It was hard to walk into his place and look at the chair where he spent most days, reading. But, Betty and I consoled ourselves with the conviction that he led a good life, was loved by many, had excellent care, and did not have to deal with a lingering decline before joining his forever wife.

What about you? What caregiving story can you share to help us all deal with what is likely to be part of our future?

April 13, 2018

How Will Younger Generations Be Able To Retire?

Steps to Complete Before Retirement

Recently, I have added a simple poll question on the top right side of the blog. For a period of 6 days readers are asked to pick one of the possible responses. Then, I post another question and collect results. If the responses are sufficiently clear to a particular question, this is a simple way to generate new blog topics. 

A few weeks ago the question asked how your retirement would compare to those in younger generations. Out of the four possible choices, more than half (56%) said, "Worse than me." Another 15% said these folks would never be able to retire. No one thought those who follow us would do better than we are.

That is a conclusive result. Roughly 7 in 10 thought their children or grandchildren would not have the chance to experience a retirement as satisfying as theirs. This is a country where we have always believed those who follow us have the opportunity of a better life. If my completely unscientific poll is even close to right, a majority no longer believes that.

So, the question becomes, Why? What won't younger people have what we do? My answers have to be entirely speculative, since that was not asked on the poll. But, I think I am on pretty safe ground with these thoughts.

1) The lack of company pensions or strong retirement plans. Certainly, the generation before us benefited from a system of pensions and health coverage after retirement. Many older Boomers enjoyed the same benefits. Beginning with changes in tax laws in the 1980's and 90's defined benefit pensions began to be replaced with defined contribution plans. This type of plan is much less generous and provides much less stability to one's retirement planning. 

2) The soaring cost of medical care. On a per capitas basis, health care costs have increased 500% since 1970, or to an average of over $11,000 per person per year. Younger workers have substantially less help in covering health care costs than we did. With the current political climate, it is likely this burden will continue to take away money that might otherwise be invested in retirement accounts.

3) The weak wage growth over the past few decades = poor rates of savings. Average wages have increased 4.63% on an annual basis since 1960. For most, that has not been nearly enough to keep up with the cost of living.

4) Instant gratification and confusing wants and needs. We remain a society driven by consumption. Advertising has one goal: to create dissatisfaction with the status quo. Financial education is lacking, so too many younger folks do not appreciate the need to delay gratification for a long term benefit.

5) A tax system based on what we earn, not what we consume. All the variables are too involved for this post, and I do not pretend to understand all the issues involved. But, a taxing system that emphasizes a tax on purchases, like a VAT tax, seems to be more logical than one based so heavily on taxing income and investments. 

This is a complex problem, one well beyond my ability to suggest a solution that works for everyone. But, the poll I mentioned, along with any number of Internet articles and research reports indicates the ability of younger generations to enjoy retirement like many of us do should be of serious concern.

I sincerely hope that a satisfying retirement is not something that ends when our generation does. It is a stage of life that everyone should be able to experience, if that is their desire. As readers of this blog appreciate, retirement is not just about not working. It is about discovering aspects of one's personality and character that can remain unrealized until the freedom of this phase of life begins.

April 10, 2018

What Would You Do If You Faced This Problem?

You can probably guess what is the #1 concern of retired folks: their health, how it will hold up and how they will pay for it. In the United States our health care system almost guarantees that a large chunk of retirement savings will disappear into the pockets of insurance companies, doctors, hospitals, care facilities, and drug companies.

The second biggest concern is the one I want to focus on with this post: running out of money. Obviously, the #1 concern is a major reason for the #2 fear. Regardless of how dedicated you may have been to saving and investments, a major medical problem, or the need for a nursing home can knock a hole in your nest egg so large, there could be little left. 

The other reasons someone could run out of money are less dramatic but still very real. If you spend a lot on vacations under the "I'll see the world while I can" your later years may suffer. If we live through another recession of the severity of 2008-10, your portfolio may not have enough time to recover. Companies go bankrupt and leave a sizable investment of yours worth pennies on the dollar. You may find yourself supporting or caring for a family member or relative. 

I don't really need to elaborate why you may face a serious money shortage at some point during your retirement; you have a vivid imagination and can come up with plenty of scenarios on your own. The real question, is what would you do? What can you do? 

Obviously, there is no one answer that fits every person and every situation. But, the basic step that must be taken is quite simple to say, and very hard to implement: reduce your outgo to match your income. If only it were that easy.

So, let's think about what you, or a friend or relative, could do if faced with a serious financial shortfall. I have five options. Then, I'd love you to add as many more as you have time to type! There are folks among us whose retirement could very well depend on what ideas we can generate.

1) Change housing. Downsize to a smaller home or condo. Rent an apartment instead of owning a house. Look at manufactured housing communities. Find someone with a spare room to rent. Get a roommate. 

2) Go on a financial fast for a month. For 30 days cut your budget to the bone. Only buy what is needed. Cancel, suspend, eliminate, cut out everything else for one month. After the fast, reassess your financial status. When you can, start adding back those things that bring joy and comfort to your life, one at a time. 

3) Consider government programs you might have overlooked before. If you qualify, check out Medicaid, food stamps (SNAP), food banks, free clinics, housing assistance, help with utility costs. If you are caring for a grandchild under five, you may qualify for WIC.

4) Get a job, any job. The goal is to tide you over until you get back on your feet, not start a second career. Greeters, an Uber driver, Amazon warehouse worker, fast food counter help...anything to bring in some cash as long as it doesn't cause you to fail to qualify for government assistance.

5) Ask a relative or friend for help. This is usually one of the last choices folks make. A certain stubbornness or pride keep us from asking those who love us to help us. 

The number of people who really run out of money during retirement is quite small. Maybe savings and investments are dangerously low. But, even then there will be money coming in. Social Security payments continue along with any pensions that you might be entitled to receive. Medicaid provides basically free medical care since  even Medicare costs money each month to maintain coverage and generally doesn't cover dental, hearing, or vision care.

Now, I'd like you to brainstorm. Imagine for a moment this is your situation: you are running low on retirement money. What would you do before things became serious? How would you attempt to solve this problem?