October 28, 2015

Freestyling During Retirement

A few months ago a newly retired reader left a comment that included a phrase I love, one I told him I would "borrow" for a post. As his life unfolded he had decided to take a freestyling approach to retirement. From that I believe he meant he would not be adverse to new experiences, new activities, and new challenges. After a life time of restrictions at work, it was time to sample everything at the buffet table to see what he enjoyed. He would improvise as needed. He would add what he liked and discard what he didn't from his day without being concerned about a previously set schedule.

Two weeks ago I wrote about my need for a schedule to accomplish what I wanted to each day. Over the last few years I had come to realize that too often I would put something off for no valid reason, except that I could. It was just too easy to say "I'll do that later" and then never get to it. Having a time slot for writing, exercise, and guitar practice increased the odds that I would accomplish what I have determined is important to me. 

Most of my day is not "on the clock." When the spirit moves us Betty and I will decide to see a movie, have lunch at a new restaurant, take Bailey to the park, or simply read a good book while sipping coffee on the back porch  But, for the three things I noted above, I have found that a set time during the week works for me.

Hold on. Isn't that the opposite of freestyling? Isn't my need for some structure too rigid to allow me to improvise or do something because I feel like it? No, I don't think it is. In fact, the scheduling of certain activities frees me to take on new things or change how I approach a problem or challenge. I don't worry about skipping something that is important because I know I have that covered. In a counterintuitive kind of way having a set schedule for certain activities is actually quite liberating. 

I imagine I am not in the majority with this approach to a satisfying journey through retirement. Having even a partially set schedule doesn't seem to fit what most people envision when finally freed from the working world. 

I am very interested in your reaction to the concept of freestyling in retirement and what that phrase might mean to you. 

October 24, 2015

Social Security, Inflation, and Seniors

I received the following press release from the Senior Citizens League a few weeks ago. It highlights a situation that affects many of us who receive Social Security benefits. I ask that you read the following and then respond to a few questions I have added:

(Alexandria, VA) Social Security beneficiaries have lost 22 percent of their buying power since 2000, according to the 2015 Survey of Senior Costs by The Senior Citizens League (TSCL).  The findings show a dramatic drop in inflation over the past year, due almost entirely to the drop in oil prices.  “The deflationary trend, while good news for some consumers, spells trouble ahead next year for retired and disabled beneficiaries who depend on Social Security for most of their income,” says TSCL Chairman Ed Cates.

In most years, Social Security beneficiaries receive a small increase in their Social Security checks, intended to help them keep up with rising costs.  But according to the 2015 TSCL survey of typical senior costs, since 2000 the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) has increased benefits just 43 percent while typical senior expenses have jumped 74 percent.  Recently the Social Security Trustees confirmed that there would be no annual COLA for 2016 — which TSCL earlier forecast in May.

Inflation has been at historic lows in recent years and seniors received a COLA of just 1.7 percent this year.  “While there’s been some temporary improvement in the buying power of Social Security benefits recently, the drop in inflation is now so large that there is no COLA expected for 2016,” says TSCL Chairman Ed Cates. 

Going without any COLA has long-term consequences resulting in lower total retirement income,” Cates says.  “This problem also affects military retirees and others who receive COLA adjusted benefits.,”

According to the TSCL survey, people with average Social Security benefits in 2000 received $816 per month, a figure that rose to $1,166.30 by 2015. However, those individuals would require a Social Security benefit of $1,419.00 per month in 2015 just to maintain the same buying power they had when they first retired, the study found.

The study examined the increase in costs of 34 key items between 2000 and January 2015.  The items were chosen because they are typical of the costs seniors must bear.  Of the 34 costs analyzed, 22 exceeded the amount of increase in the COLA over the same period.  The selected items represent eight categories, weighted by approximate expenditure.

“This study illustrates why budget proposals that would cut the growth of COLAs would put millions of older and disabled Americans at risk of insufficient income to cover more growing expenses,” says Cates. “To put it in perspective, for every $100 worth of expenses seniors could afford in 2000, they can afford just $78 today.” A majority of the 59 million senior and disabled Americans who receive Social Security depend on it for at least 50 percent of their total income, and one in three beneficiaries relies on it for 90 percent or more of his or her total income.


The COLA situation may not affect you, or maybe it does quite directly. The effect of inflation, even the "official" low level of the last several years, takes its toll. No one is unaware of the increased medical costs for prescription drugs, insurance premiums, copays and deductibles, even for those on Medicare.  A couple should expect to spend an estimated $245,000 (in today's dollars) on health care in retirement, according to Fidelity’s 2015 Health Care Cost Estimate, as reported in Forbes Magazine.

The costs at the grocery store are just as dramatic. Ground beef has increased 130% since 2000,  a dozen eggs are up 117%, even a loaf of bread is 63% more expensive over the same time period. Electricity is up  63%, real estate taxes 127% higher.....for those on fixed incomes these increases can be very damaging.

So, my questions to you are these:

1) Realizing that so many seniors depend on Social Security for a major portion of their income should the government use a calculation that insures monthly payments at least keep pace with the inflation of the true cost of living?

2) Because the system will be in serious financial straits at some point in the not too distant future, is this something that Social Security simply can't afford, even if the result is real loss of buying power over time?

Frankly, I am not sure what my answers would be to these two questions. One part of me says if we can afford a half a trillion dollar defense budget, or to send a spaceship to Mars, then maybe our priorities toward the most vulnerable part of our society need adjusting. Many seniors cannot reasonably find ways to increase their income, so they are truly stuck. Official inflation calculations do not take into account the dramatically increased costs that are part of our daily life. 

On the other hand, it is not just those on Social Security who have to deal with wages that have barely budged over the last decade. Is it fair to make those on Social Security a little better off while wage earners are not made whole? 

What are your thoughts? What is fair and compassionate? 

October 10, 2015

White Mountain RVing

This has not been a good year for RV travel. Except for a week long trip to Palm Springs in January, the RV has been sitting, unused, in a storage yard about 15 minutes from our house. Two short adventures and our summer-long trip were cancelled for reasons detailed in earlier posts.

So, it was with a great sense of satisfaction that Betty, Bailey, and I loaded up R.T. ( the name of the RV - Road Trip) and spend three nights at our favorite state park in Arizona, Follows Hollow, just outside Show Low. At 6300 feet the area is 20-25 degrees cooler than our desert home, a blessing.

The camping sites are spaced far enough apart for a very private feeling. Situated above the beautiful blue and shimmering lake, it is hard not to relax. A picnic table and fire pit are perfectly placed for meals and evening fires. Bailey has miles of trails to explore and smell new smells. 

Betty getting the fire ready
She is loving it
At night we experienced a sight that is almost impossible at home: untold thousands of stars and even the white smear of the Milky Way overhead. The slight reddish tinge of Mars, the North Star, and both dippers were easy to spot. There is complete quiet except for night time insects and the crackling of the fire.

During the day we hiked, read, talked, napped, played games and made plans for our grandson's upcoming birthday party. In the evening, fire pit time was followed by more game playing or a movie brought from home. Winds were gusty, sometimes reaching 30 mph during the day which made for the constant rustling and swaying of trees.

Importantly, I had the time and stillness to think about adjustments to my schedule and direction this fall. I saw this time as a end to summer and the beginning of the new season with all that might entail. I came home feeling as though I had flipped the calendar page to a fresh start.

A while back I wrote about my "need" to become involved in some volunteer activity, to do something that served those who are less fortunate or somehow marginalized in our society. My initial step is to become part of a steering committee being formed by United Way to find ways to get seniors more actively involved in service opportunities. The first meeting is next week, as part of a Connect day, a regular event when hundreds of folks get access to help with housing or medical issues. 

My time in the mountains also helped clarify the importance to me of a schedule. I am finding it much too easy to drift through a day, putting off chores or activities for no particular reason than because I can.

I am going to take a page from my business days when I had to juggle dozens of different responsibilities and deadlines: have a daily schedule that has definite time slots for various things that I know are important to me: exercise/gym/bike riding time, writing, and guitar practice. 

It might seem strange that retirement requires a more rigid schedule, but that is what I think will be best for me at this point in my satisfying journey. I will let you know how it works.

If you ever have the opportunity to visit, even for just a picnic and a hike, I can't say enough good things about Fools Hollow State Park. Arizona may have some problems with governance and its budget, but Betty and I have yet to be at a State Park that wasn't clean, well maintained, and well run. I am guessing the dedicated and friendly volunteers who man these places are responsible for much of what we experience. 

In the meantime, enjoy these photos:

Our home away from home

View of fire pit and lake

Stored until Spring

If we caught any fish, Betty was ready!

The family that camps together........

October 5, 2015

175 Channels and A Tiger

Regular readers know I dropped cable TV several years ago. I just couldn't justify the monthly charge for so many channels we never watched. The number of commercials in a typical network or cable show has become overwhelming and most of what is presented as entertainment, isn't. Both Betty and I felt we were wasting too many hours watching marginal material. So, we became an early cord cutter.

Confession: it is just as easy to get sucked into too many hours in front of the set with only Netflix and Amazon Prime. At a monthly cost that is a fraction of what the local cable monopoly wanted, we have access to movies, TV shows, and original programming - and we indulge ourselves. It is a constant battle to keep the binge viewing under control. 

In a move that defies common sense I have recently committed to satellite TV for a two year deal. Now, I have about 175 channels, again the vast majority of which I could care less about. How many jewelry channels does someone need? But, there is a very definite purpose behind this odd move for someone trying to control time in front of the television: increased family time. 

Proudly displaying the Bengals logo
My son-in-law, and therefore his son (my grandson) are huge fans of the Cincinnati Bengals. Oddly, neither the son-in-law or any of his family have ever lived in this city. In fact, no one has ever been there. 

The attraction is one of those fascinating stories that makes life so interesting: while growing up Keith was captivated by anything to do with tigers. Since the Cincinnati team's logo is a Bengal tiger he became enthralled with the team, and has carried that interest into adulthood.  

Keith's home is like ours: no cable TV. The only way to see his favorite team play is on Direct TV's NFL Ticket channels. So, Betty and I decided to give the family a perfect reason to gather at our house throughout the fall: add satellite TV so we all can watch the Bengals, eat and play together, and spend quality time as a family enjoying each others' company.

Since the Bengals' games usually start early in our time zone, I added a DVR to our package so I can record the game while we are all at church. By the time we actually start to watch the game in real time it is already over. So, we are very careful not to look at anything that might spoil the experience by revealing the ending before we see it. On the plus side, we fast forward through all the commercials so a full game can be seen in under two hours!

Often we will add a family game or movie everyone enjoys after the football game. As the weather cools down I imagine games of croquet and lawn darts in our backyard will keep us occupied. With a large dining table on the back patio and a handy grill, dinner will become a festive family affair.

Satellite TV is an expense that would normally never be part of our lifestyle. But, in this case it is the perfect use of part of our budget and our satisfying journey through retirement. 

Family time makes it all worth while. Oh, and at the time of this writing the Bengals are undefeated with a very solid 4-0 start to this NFL season. 

October 2, 2015

The Health Concerns That Keep Us Awake at Night

I wrote this post almost four years ago. Being more attuned to my health and how I am going to navigate the waters ahead for me and Betty, these thoughts and clicks to web pages seemed worth a repeat. I have updated a few of the links.

As you are well aware, right behind financial concerns and questions, health is something that all of us think about as we attempt to navigate the sometimes choppy waters of a satisfying journey. 

While a cliché, the statement, "if you don't have your health you don't have anything," is absolutely true. By health I'm not talking about maintaining the energy and flexibility, eye sight and strength that you had at 30 or 40. Rather, in our context being healthy means being able to care for ourselves, enjoy friends and family, engage in physical activities appropriate to our age, and learn to manage the pains and limitations that are part of aging.

Because I am not a doctor (if I were I would have better health care!)  I am not prepared to suggest how you can live well as long as possible. What I am good at is locating web sites that will give you additional information or ways to learn more, if that disease and infirmity is one you want to know more about.

I have found lists of the major health concerns of older folks. They are remarkably similar so I trust they have captured the top-of-mind topics that might be important to you. After each, I will provide some links to web sites that can give more more information. At the end, I will provide some links to previous articles I have written that you may have missed.

I wish God had decided to design our bodies so we stay fit and healthy until the second we drop dead. But, that isn't how it works, so here are our top health worries:

#1 on all lists is heart health. The most common condition for those over 65 is some type of heart problem. We know about the negative effects of smoking, lack of exercise, or being over weight. But, what are some of the signals of problems and what can we do? (You can bet I rechecked all of these resources)

Next on the list of concerns is a stroke. According to the National Stroke Association, "A stroke or "brain attack" occurs when a blood clot blocks an artery (a blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the body) or a blood vessel (a tube through which the blood moves through the body) breaks, interrupting blood flow to an area of the brain. When either of these things happen, brain cells begin to die and brain damage occurs. When brain cells die during a stroke, abilities controlled by that area of the brain are lost. There are different severities of strokes, some leaving no permanent damage, others just some weakness, while major strokes affect one's ability to speak or move.

Cancer is a disease virtually all of us have some personal contact with, either because of family or friends. In particular, female breast cancer is a high profile concern, while males die way too often from prostate cancer. The number of sites that deal with cancer in all its various forms number in the millions. Here are just a few to help you get started in your own investigation.

Pneumonia and Flu are certainly not restricted to older folks. But, the consequences tend to be  more severe. In fact, pneumonia is the fifth highest killer of those over 65. Since seniors tend to have more lung problems it is often hard to diagnose pneumonia until it is advanced.

Falls and accidents around the home. Simple falls or accidents that would have no long term effect on a younger person can prove fatal to someone older. Not only does it take longer for an injury to heal, but too often other complications like pneumonia occur because of the extended time spent lying in a bed. Osteoporosis creates brittle bones that may never heal properly.

Eye issues, like macular degeneration and cataracts. This is an area of health concerns that strikes a real chord with me. My mom began to lose her sight to wet MD about 3 years before her death. Aggressive treatments with shots did not help. Within 18 months she could only tell light from dark.  As a life-long teacher and reader, losing her sight was very difficult for her. It directly contributed to her falling, breaking her leg, and forcing her to spend the last year and a half of her life in a hospital and nursing care center. Personally, I believe Macular Degeneration shortened her life by several years and destroyed the quality of the time she had left.

Unfortunately, I have only begun to scratch the surface of  health issues that affect us. These are not cherry subjects nor ones that most of us want to spend much time with. That is part of the problem. Education and awareness helps both the senior having issues and the caregivers trying to protect that person's quality of life as much as possible.

Borrowing a phrase from Star Trek, may you live long and prosper.