October 30, 2014

One Year Ago: Are We Feeling Better Yet?

Just about one year ago we began the adventure called by various names, with Obamacare, the one used most often. The infamous web site, Healthcare.gov, was launched to great fanfare - and quickly became a disaster. The president's signature legislative program almost ended before it began. While I don't think the miscues were related to the hacking problem I wrote about a few weeks ago, the government couldn't design a web site that worked.

One year later, where are we? The new enrollment period for health coverage starts on November 15th and runs through February. Encouraging words about the web site's performance this year give those of us who must navigate its depths some hope. The 76 pages of application information have been cut to 16. Back buttons are supposed to work, like every other web site in the world. In theory, once certain information is entered it doesn't have to be re-entered.

For me, none of this matters. Medicare and a Medigap supplement policy have simplified my life. Yes, my Part D drug coverage insurer wanted to raise my rates by 35%, so I just switched to another company with lower prices. That was a minor hassle compared to when I was part of the horror of the private insurance, individual market.

My wife, Betty, however, must jump back in. Last year her application became so fouled up we had to go through the "Resolution Center" to get her covered. Now, her insurance company has informed her the policy she has will not be available next year so her health insurance ends on December 31st. Her options? Buy a similar policy through the same company for a lot more money and no tax subsidy, or pay a visit to healthcare.gov and hope for the best. Because of the price difference the latter is her choice.

I imagine she will have to do this every year for the next 4 years until she qualifies for Medicare. The companies selling the insurance through the exchanges are looking for legal ways to increase their income and one way is to hope people simply buy a more expensive product directly from the company rather than put up with the on-line hassle to find a cheaper alternative.

Even with the hassles the policy she purchased through the exchange has been a real benefit. A trip to an emergency room in June that would have cost us $8,800 for a few tests under her old policy, ended up costing $150. She is fine, by the way. What we thought was wrong, was not. And, to pay $150 out of pocket for what all the fine folks did at Paradise Valley Hospital for her (and me) was an very welcome benefit of her new policy.

In a study released by AARP magazine two weeks ago, one finding stuns me:

* Almost four in ten 50+ workers (38%) are not saving for health care costs, and many (44%) do not have any plans to do so in the future.

I can understand the first part of that statistic. Though I am willing to bet there are places to cut expenses today to have some reserves for the future, I imagine many of those in the 38% don't believe they can afford to save. I could say they can't afford NOT to save, but sometimes life doesn't cooperate.

But, for 44% to say they are not going to save in the future? What are they thinking? There is no health care fairy that leaves money under your pillow at night. There is very little chance you will get through the last few decades of life without medical expenses that strain, or even shatter, your resources.

10 million of our fellow citizens who didn't have any health insurance before last year do now. Tens of millions more are not having their preexisting conditions prevent them from getting decent coverage (like Betty). That adds up to a lot of people who no longer treat the emergency room as their only option.

Others found out they couldn't keep the plan and doctors they had before the law took effect and were forced to take part, sometimes at a greater cost, other times for less money with a government subsidy in place. But, the disruption and uncertainty was upsetting.

This is not a political post and I ask that your comments don't try to turn it into one that points fingers, even if you are still in the camp that wants to repeal Obamacare. Nor am I dealing with insurance issued through your employer.
The goal for this post is to ask a few follow up questions. if you purchased insurance on-line from healthcare.gov or through an insurance company's web site, I am interested in your actual experiences since this time last year:

 - Has your medical care improved or gotten worse? Why?

 - Are your medical expenses higher or lower? Consider not just your premiums but also out-of-pocket expenses for prescriptions and copays.

 - Did you use the health exchange last year?

 - If so, are you planning on using it again this year for find a better deal?

I will be very interested in your real life experiences.

October 26, 2014

What To Do When Things Are Rocky With Your Parents

This was first posted about 3 1/2 years ago, well before Satisfying Retirement had many readers. Since it is a subject that continues to concern many of us, I decided to give it fresh exposure. I think many of the thoughts can also apply to siblings and marriages.

I am most interested in your thoughts and feedback on this topic.

Not long ago a reader asked for some feedback on the important issue of dealing with a difficult parent. This problem is one that many of us are facing now, or will have to deal with in the future. I don’t pretend to be an expert in this area of human relationships. But, doing some basic research and experiencing some of these issues myself have provided some approaches that may be helpful for that reader, and you, to consider in your quest for satisfying retirement.

1) Don’t expect your family member to change. Whatever you do (or don’t do) accept that the difficult parent may not change. You can change some of the factors under your control that may make the relationship less stressful. But, expecting a difficult parent to become loving and accepting will only make your feeling toward that person worse when change does not occur.

2) Don't Give Advice Unless It's Asked For. Your parent is probably feeling a loss of control and freedom. If you begin to reverse the parent-child role by offering unsolicited advice on unimportant topics, you are risking problems. Importantly this concerns advice, not critical health and safety issues that must be faced.

3) Accept Differences of Opinions. After all, your parent is not you. Mom or Dad does not think exactly like you. Respect the opinions of others, don't disregard them. Don’t dismiss, out of hand, an opinion no matter how different from yours.

4) Listen to What Your Elderly Parent is Saying. Listen completely, really listen. Remember that an older person might take longer to form a response or finish a thought. A period of silence is not a bad thing that you need to fill immediately. Paying attention and listening carefully shows respect. Of course, listening works both ways so try to determine that your loved one is hearing and understanding what you are saying.

5) Attempt to determine a pattern. Does your parent’s mood worsen the longer he or she is awake? Could it be pain? it a growing feeling of frustration at the inability to perform usual daily tasks or to remember things? Angry outbursts, complaints, and sarcasm may be the result.

6) Respond to strong emotions with none. The best response is no response at all. Most people who like to argue do so because it tends to evoke a strong emotional reaction from others. Don't take the bait. If you respond to a challenge with a clam and neutral emotional tone, it is likely the combative parent will move on to another subject. your mother will probably drop the subject pretty quickly.

7) At all costs, stay calm. When you must deal with criticism and anger keep yourself under control. Yelling back never helps. Your parent’s emotions can be a projection of feelings of isolation and inability to do he or she used to do. Don’t allow yourself to be pulled into a battle that is about emotions and not reality.

8) Protect Yourself. You and your parent cannot afford for you to suffer from burnout. While you can't change your aging parents' condition, you can do things for yourself. Remember that you need a respite for yourself. Your parent may not be happy (so what else is new?), but hire someone for a few hours, or even a full day to recharge your batteries. Taking a break is something that you require. Don’t feel guilty. Don’t accept criticism from others. You know your limits.

This is a complex issue that is loaded with emotional landmines. While I am comfortable with the steps noted above, I don't believe this list is complete. Your input and life experiences will help us all.

My dad will turn 91 in a few months. As his mental and physical facilities slip, I will be faced with more tough decisions about his care. I am as anxious to read what you have to say as anyone.

October 22, 2014

Not A Lot Has Changed In 4 Years

One of the reasons I started Satisfying Retirement was because of the near universal focus on retirement finances on blogs available on the Internet. Of course I had financial questions, like when to begin Social Security, should I pay off my mortgage as soon as I could, would I benefit from consulting a financial advisor?

But, when I first began to think of closing my company and retiring I was also looking for practical help on all the issues that would affect my life if I stopped working: keeping relationships healthy, dealing with boredom and lots of free time, maintaining my health amidst the crazy world of American health care. Do you still take vacations after retirement? How about hobbies? I was looking for real life feedback from others who had retired and struggled, and from those who flourished and couldn't wait to begin each day.

I couldn't find any. I did find a handful of older books that dealt with all the aspects of retirement living, but nothing online. So, for the first several years I did a lot of on-the-job training. I struggled to find my footing and make the most of my time. I went back to part time work more out of boredom and thinking I needed the extra income (I didn't). Still, the Internet provided very little non-financial encouragement or solid feedback.

As I have recounted before, the opportunity to scratch my writing itch and to service a need that I felt existed prompted me to start blogging in 2010.

As an experiment, last week I spent some time searching Google for the top retirement topics, the top non-financial questions of retirees, and anything that seemed to fulfill the information gap that existed 5 or 10 years ago. Frankly, not a lot has changed. Ask Google about retirement issues and the first half dozen pages (That is dozens of web sites & blogs) are virtually all dealing with money.

Blogs that deal with the full range of topics that retirees, or soon-to-be-retirees, are asking about remain few and far between. There are a few recent additions, sites like Olderhood.com and Senior Forum. And, you will find several blogs I enjoy and read regularly listed on the left sidebar. But, for the most part if I were in the same position, after searching Google, I would come to the same conclusion I did 13 years ago: too many retirement blogs about money and not enough about life.

In one area there is much more information available than when I was looking for help: books. Considering the supposed death of publishing, I am not finding that true in this regard. Sure, most of them are available as e-book downloads as well as paperback and hard cover. But, book publishing about retirement seems to be holding its own.

The reason I am mentioning this is twofold: to encourage any new bloggers to start writing about retirement without the financial focus, and to feel good about my decision to continue this blog after my summer sabbatical.

As an aside, I am beginning work on my third book. Even though Living a Satisfying Retirement continues to chug along, with 6-8 books sold every week, I am feeling to need to tackle the subject again. We'll see what happens.

Thanks for reading and supporting this retirement approach. It took 3 1/2 years to reach 1 million page views. Now, just 11 months later almost 500,000 more have clicked on the blog. That level of readership is very much appreciated.

Life requires a handle on your financial situation, but a satisfying life is about so much more.

October 18, 2014

Preparing Your Home For An Extended Absence

A reader reminded me that I promised to prepare an overview of what Betty and I did prior to our 2 month RV trip this summer to get our home ready. While everyone's situation is different, maybe this will be helpful if you ever find yourself needing to do something similar.

Some of these steps can be taken ahead of time, others just before leaving:

Inside the home:

* all electric appliances, computers, TVs, etc connected to power strips.
 All power strips then unplugged from wall.
*Microwave, stove, dishwasher, clothes washer & dryer unplugged.
*refrigerator ice maker emptied and turned off.
*refrigerator emptied, unplugged, cleaned, doors propped open.
*water heater turned off.
*Internet modem and wireless router unplugged.
*plastic wrap over toilets (to keep any bugs from entering house after water evaporated from bowls).
*overflow drains in sinks and bathtubs covered with blue painter's tape.
*disposal run, baking soda down both kitchen drains.
*stoppers placed in kitchen sinks.
*wooden braces put in downstairs window and patio door tracks to keep closed.
*new light bulbs in lamps connected to timers.
*timers on three lamps to come on at different times during evening.
*cancel Netflix DVD service.
*garage door opener put in locked position. 
*garage door openers and keys removed from car in garage.
*door from garage to house locked.
*doggie door panel put in place and locked.
*upstairs windows locked.
*amateur radio antennas disconnected from radios and electrically grounded.
*store heat sensitive candles at daughter's house.
*new batteries in all smoke detectors
*AC set at 90 degrees

Outside home:

*turn water off to house but leave on for sprinkler system.
*new battery in sprinkler timer (in case electricity fails).
*make arrangements with neighbor to remove door hangers. 
*forward all mail to daughter's home.
*have lawn service keep front weeded (normally my job).
*have family member check on house, inside & out, every 2 weeks.

Even though some sources suggested unhooking the car battery from the vehicle left at home, I did not. When we returned it started right up. If gone for a longer period, it might be a good idea to run fuel additive through the car and unhook the battery cables.

One possibility that Betty and I discussed before we left: if we came home to find the TV, computers, or whatever, stolen, we would not let that sour us on the idea of leaving for long trips. We realize we could be robbed if we are gone for a few hours to a movie. The fear of losing some possessions was not going to keep us from enjoying the experiences that awaited us on the road.

Welcome home!
The outcome? When we returned there was not a single problem and nothing missing. The water in the toilet tank had not completely evaporated but I felt more comfortable with the plastic wrap keeping anything outside. Everything powered back up, the refrigerator started making new ice within a few hours, and the lights on timers still worked.

We had hot water in 45 minutes and the house cooled down to our normal 79-80 degrees within 4 hours. The lawn looked great, all the plants on drips were alive and the front yard was weed-free. 

The list (and trip) was a success.

October 14, 2014

A Lifestyle You Choose - Really?

Earlier this summer I modified the blog's title by changing the line that follows Satisfying Retirement to A Lifestyle You Choose. I thought that qualifier was a good fit for the overall message of this blog.

Frankly, I thought I'd get a grumble of disagreement from a few readers. A Lifestyle You Choose could be interpreted to mean if you have problems and disappointments it is likely your fault. A  satisfying retirement is there if you work hard enough. No feedback means no one noticed the change (not good) or everyone agrees with the statement (good, but unlikely).

Now that I have been back from my summer sabbatical for several weeks, I thought maybe I'd take the opportunity to explain what I mean and why I think it fits the blog's title.

A Lifestyle You Choose most assuredly does not mean you make your own luck. It does not mean to make a decision and everything will fall into place. Any financial, relational, health, or time management concerns will vanish once you choose the right lifestyle.

What it does mean is simply this: you choose to make whatever situation you find yourself either satisfying or unsatisfying. Examples? Sure:

* Your financial situation isn't what you envisioned it to be when you imagined your retirement years. You thought you would have more in the bank, more productive investments, a house that would be a solid source of equity for the future.

* A few minor health issues have become major potholes in the road of your life. For someone who rarely needed a doctor, hadn't seen the inside of a hospital, and managed to avoid even the common cold, you now find yourself dealing with limitations, obstacles, and pains. You have more doctors than friends and you are all too familiar with our health care system.

* Your spouse or significant other has made it clear he or she now expects more from you than has been "good enough" to now: more involvement, more support, more understanding.  

* Your plan to live in Europe or the South Pacific for a few years never happened. Now, you feel lucky to get out of town for a long weekend every now and then.

I could continue, but you get the idea. Life has not treated you with all the respect you feel you deserve. Your retirement years are not what you had planned. Your satisfying retirement is a disappointment. Your are unsatisfied.

Certainly, living that way is an option. We are free to form an impression of our life and live in a way that makes it a reality.

But, why? Just as you can choose to be unsatisfied with your lot in life, you can choose to live very differently. You can look at the vast majority of the people in the rest of the world and realize you are blessed beyond belief.

No matter what health issues are making life unpleasant or even painful and difficult, I'm pretty sure there are others who would trade places with you in a flash. 

No matter how much you have had to scale back your plans because of your finances, you are in the top 5% of the world's population in terms of your monetary situation. You may have lost your home and live in a small apartment. But, 1.8 billion people around the world live in substandard housing...that means no running water, no sanitary facilities, multiple people crowded into a small space, no hot water, no electricity. Your apartment would look like a palace to them.

I am not talking about a dose of positive thinking. This is not a post about wearing rose colored glasses. It is about how we will respond to what live throws at us.

We can choose to feel defeated or even beaten down. We can live as if life has treated us unfairly. We can feel cheated by fate. We can live a lifestyle during our retirement that is unhappy and unsatisfied.

Or, we can choose to look honestly at what life has given and taken away from us and decide there is nothing to be gained by shaking our fist at the heavens. We can decide to make the most of what we have, not what we don't. We can adjust our expectations to better match reality.

We can choose an approach to life that makes our retirement years satisfying. The past can't be changed, the future can't be predicted. The only thing we can control with even the slightest bit of certainty is the here and now. 

Why choose to experience these moments that will never come again with anything less than an attitude that expresses gratitude and satisfaction? 

This take on life is why I modified the blog title. I firmly believe that my satisfying retirement is a lifestyle that I have chosen to embrace and accept, however different it is from what I had planned and whatever lies ahead.

October 11, 2014

A Philosophy of Sunshine and Song

One of the special moments on this summer's RV trip was experiencing the music of a musician named Matt Wahl. He spends his summers (and free time the rest of the year) touring all over the upper midwest and Florida, playing at arts and crafts festivals, restaurants, and parks. We happened to catch his free Friday night show at a beautiful little park in Egg Harbor, WI. Overlooking the water, Betty and I spent two glorious hours captivated by the beauty of the view and Matt's songs. 

As luck would have it, two nights later he was playing at a restaurant we wanted to try for dinner in the nearby town of Fish Creek. We struck up a conversation with Matt, learned a bit about him and his family, bought two of his CD's, and sat around an outdoor fire pit while enjoying his music.

Then, in a totally unexpected surprise it happened that he was staying in the same campground we were. So, during our walk the next morning with Bailey, we stopped by his campsite to tell him how much we enjoyed his music and lyrics. I told him his songs remind me of Jimmy Buffett without the booze and drugs!

His songs are uplifting, positive, family-friendly (for the most part!), and filled with messages of living in the moment, positive vibes, sunshine, and family. While listening to his CDs we drove around Wisconsin and then toward home.  I thought his approach to life mirrors mine and is worth a post. 

Here are a sampling of some of his titles:

Lighten Up
It's About Love
It's Finally Summer
The Time is Now
I Like the Look of Today
The Answer is Faith
Somewhere in the Sun
I Never Took the Time
A Sunny Place

Matt and his family live in Duluth, Minnesota, where warmth and abundant sunshine often don't begin until sometime in July and then end in September. So, I guess it is expected that he sings so much about sunshine and summertime fun. From what I gather he really loves traveling around the area in the summer months, making music, and entertaining folks. He is living his dream and is happy.

Our encounters with Matt, his music, and his warm personality became one of our strongest memories from the vacation. He reminded us of the importance of living a full life each day, doing what we love, thanking God for our blessings, and smiling...always smiling.

Matt Wahl at Egg Harbor's Harbor Park

Thanks, Matt, for the memories and the music.

If you'd like to listen to him, this link will take to his web site for his story and music.

October 8, 2014

Hackers Are Having a Field Day At Our Expense

courtesy abcnews.com
News item: J.P. Morgan reports 76 million households have had some of their account information stolen. Note that is households, so that might mean something close to half the American population.

News item: Another nine financial institutions were hacked by the same group at the same time.

News item: Home Depot says 56 million personal accounts were hacked, putting that number of credit cards at risk.

News item: Target loses 40 million credit card account data to hackers.

Excuse me, but are we officially scared yet? Do we realize how unable to stop these people all of our important institutions are? Do we suspect that government computers are attacked and hacked multiple times a day? Do we fully comprehend that our power grids are all run by very hackable computers and are a mouse click away from being shut down?

Our lifestyle, financial, governmental, and environmental well-being are under constant attack and we seem to be doing a rather poor job of stopping it. To "fix" the problem 4 months after it is first found is the best we can muster? To issue "patches" after the fact isn't good enough.  To apologize and give a year's worth of free credit monitoring is like giving us a smoke alarm after the house burned down.

We can send a spaceship to Mars, we can find the money to make permanent war on an endless supply of bad guys, we can make 90" TV screens, we can invent smartphones that can monitor our home security from 5,000 miles away......but we can't protect ourselves from people bent on messing with our lives.

And, I don't know why we aren't outraged.

The typical response seems to be a shrug of the shoulder and an acceptance that this is the new normal. We feel good about "free" credit monitoring that financial or big box stores give us. Of course, all that does is let us know quickly when someone has stolen our identity and hijacked our financial life. 

We continue to do business with companies that say "We're sorry" but know the next cyber attack is just over the hill. The CEO's of these companies continue to take home multi-million dollar salaries even as they put tens of millions of us in a bind. 

I don't have an answer, just a sense of helplessness, which is one of the goals of a terrorist. Stealing my identity, hacking into my life, and causing me endless grief is every bit as much a terrorist attack as some crazy with a bomb. The cyber attack will not be fatal (unless our electricity, food, and water supply are cut off). But, it does significant damage just the same.

Stop using credit cards? That could be a partial solution, but at a very high cost of inconvenience and hassle. Stop shopping at compromised stores? That doesn't leave many. Stockpile water and food for when the hackers mess with our energy supplies? Maybe. Buy dozens of solar panels so I don't need the local electric utility? Not practical but maybe a necessity.

Or, demand that the money and brain power of this country be turned on an enemy much more likely to harm our day-to-day way of life than a small band of fanatics intent on forming their own country or way of life on the other side of the world.  We are under daily attack, right now, on our own soil from computer hackers and cyber criminals. This is not hypothetical - it is going on as you read this post.

ROI, or return on investment, is a basic economic principle. I am willing to bet the immediate ROI on upping our hacker defenses will pay much greater dividends over the near term than shooting off a $1 million dollar missile several times a day so we can blow up a truck or a building somewhere in the Mideast. 

If the responsible people at these companies and in government lost their jobs when 40, 50, 60, 70 million customers lost their privacy then maybe things would be different. At the moment there seems to be no consequence for massive failure.

Hackers have declared war on us, and our response is to try and close that proverbial barn door after all the horses have run away.

That shouldn't be good enough.

OK, my rant is over.