September 27, 2016

When a "Normal" Retirement Doesn't Work

For many of us, a satisfying retirement follows a pattern that seems almost preordained. We work for several decades. We live a "normal" life, spending more than we should at times, but careful to set aside money for the future. We try to control our human urge for instant gratification and do our best to live within a budget. Eventually, we leave the world of work and begin to experience the freedom of this new phase of our life.

Social Security starts. Medicare eases many of our worries about health expenses. We travel some, spend more time with family, satisfy our creative urges, volunteer in a way that gives back some of our blessings, and often see growth in our spiritual life. In short, our retirement is what we hoped for.

Unfortunately, not everyone lives this picture. A post a month or so ago dealt with grandparents becoming parents. That topic generated some excellent comments. Most of us expect that the daily parenting part of our life is over as we approach retirement age. But, for too many, it is not. Dreams of a very different future are put on hold or ended.

What about having to retire due to an unexpected job loss or an Enron-type collapse that wipes out someone's nest egg? How about folks that lived either paycheck to paycheck, just scraping by, or stitched together a series of part time jobs, just trying to stay afloat? The image of a normal retirement life isn't part of their reality.

A reader asked if I could pass along some thoughts about retirement and those who must take a different path through this stage of life. That was an excellent suggestion and one that prompted the post about grandparents raising children. 

I will readily admit that my retirement is comfortable. I am living pretty much the way I thought I would be at this stage of my life. A few early struggles over financial worries and time management are the worst I have experienced so far. So, for me to offer advice to others in very different situations makes me somewhat uncomfortable. I have some thoughts based on what I have read, researched, and seen, but not on personal experience. I  may be way off the mark. I can offer some thoughts and then hope you will add your ideas and suggestions. 

* For someone who has serious financial restraints, housing is likely to be a major problem. A typical home or condo may be out of reach. In many parts of the country affordable apartments are hard to find. What are alternatives? Roommates and shared housing are reasonable options. The tiny house movement is a possibility. Park Models at RV parks offer security and comfort at at reasonable prices. Certainly manufactured housing, either purchased or rented, can be an option. Staying with relatives may be a reasonable choice. 

*Many skills and experiences lend themselves to participating in the barter and exchange economy. An estimated $12 billion in services are exchanged in the U.S. every year without cash. A family member of mine exchanges a 60 minute massage for hairstyling. Both ladies benefit and no money changes hands. Maybe you have training as a nurse or adult daycare worker. Is it possible to exchange that experience for room and board?

There are folks making enough money to make life more pleasant by selling household items or collectible on ebay. Buying things at a local flea market and then reselling them is common. Over 2 million people visit the web site every day, all looking to buy or sell.

* The quickest way to make money is spend less of what you do have. I hope I am not minimizing the real problem some of our fellow retirees face. Choosing between food or prescriptions is not a theoretical choice for too many. Living through a hot summer without air conditioning can be life threatening as we get older. 

Even so, most of us can find something that we can live without. What we may think of as a necessity may be a luxury when times are tight. After all, when we were growing up there were three TV channels, no cell phones, and a meal out was a special treat. We didn't feel deprived. 

* Retirement is not a forever state, if you can't afford it to be. There is absolutely no shame in going back to full or part time work. You will be thought of an a successful entrepreneur if you turn a hobby or skill into a business that generates any level of income. Don't get discouraged if some form of ageism discrimination makes things more difficult. 

* It is hard to make sense of a situation where health care is unaffordable by tens of millions of our citizens. The Epipen uproar is only the latest example of putting profits before saving lives. For the truly poor, Medicaid, guaranteed treatment at the emergency room, and other government programs are available. They are onerous and sap one's dignity, but they will keep someone alive. It is the lower and middle class that gets shafted in this country, and I don't have an answer. If someone is forced into early retirement, any employer-provided health care coverage is gone. Meals-on-Wheels may provide the only decent food someone receives all week.

The pre-Obamacare model didn't work. The post-Obamacare model is failing. Health care that is based on maximizing profits and minimizing contact with people who really need a doctor is simply ridiculous from any perspective. Frankly, this is not a political issue. This is a moral and ethical embarrassment. A society has a responsibility to provide an essential service like health care to its citizens that can't afford decent care. Build a few less jet fighters and keep men, women, and children alive and productive.

A "normal" retirement shouldn't be our goal, regardless of our financial or health status. I will argue with anyone that retirement is a unique experience for each of us. At the same time, the reader raised the question of how our less-fortunate citizens can deal with the problems that confront them.

I hope a few of the things noted above are helpful. I strongly encourage you to add your thoughts to this important discussion. 


  1. You make some helpful suggestions to those struggling financially in retirement. Good ideas.

    1. Thanks, Terra. Please feel free to add any of your thoughts.

  2. My bff's mother was married four times- for short stints. She is a substance abuser- and was not a very kind mother. She is now in her mid 70's and lives on about $700 a month in SS. After years of house sharing, she lives in subsidized senior housing in Phoenix. The "kids" worry that she will be kicked out once her drinking restarts (for it always has). The $700 covers "rent" and most of her meds- but not her food and depends. They send Safeway food deliveries and Amazon to get her those things- because extra money "disappears" quickly. No one wishes to take her in- because she rakes havoc on marriages and grandchildren. No one lives near her. No one has the income to support her.
    Another friend, a 63 yr widow with a chronic disease, has been unable to work for at least ten years. She cannot wait to get on Medicare- because she cannot afford ACA and has too much of a nest egg for Medicaid. She has learned many home remedies- but her teeth are a mess. She has no close ties to family. She is smart and takes some pretty big market gambles with her nest egg to keep income flowing. She has been attempting to sell her house- but that is not easy when you are sick. She, pretty much, is self sufficient---but what happens if she becomes more ill?
    Neither women have "barter" type skills. If they could go back to work, there is little chance they would make enough to make a difference. They have very few "things". Both women have longevity in their lives ( mothers or grandmother who lived into their 90s).
    Nursing care is almost non existent for Medicare people.
    I am blessed that both of my kids plan on a "granny pod" for us in the long run. We will simply add our income to theirs to keep it all going. I know we cannot afford what my mother has in assisted living. I am praying that the nanny robots will be on line by the time I am ready for full time care.
    I have friends who have already discussed suicide rather then becoming a dependent with high needs. We are the baby boomers after all- independent and beholding to none.
    I don't know the answer- but I think there are far more people out there without a satisfying retirement then we would like to believe.

    1. I am convinced a "satisfying retirement" is a pipe dream for millions of our peers. As you so dramatically note in your examples, people can fall through the cracks of support and proper care, either through poor life choices or fate. But, each and everyone is a human being, deserving of our support and care.

      Unfortunately, there aren't systems strong enough to catch all of them. If family isn't there to help, the future is bleak.

      Thanks, Janette.

  3. An unexpected significant change in health can dramatically alter retirement plans. Our retirement looks very different than what we had hoped for. Financially we are secure, but changes in health now prevent us from experiencing the travel and lifestyle we had hoped for. Not a complaint, just an observation.

    You can prepare for retirement, do all the preventive health care stuff, live a very healthy life style, and still find your life suddenly and dramatically altered by an unwanted change in health.

    Attitude is everything. Rather than give in to the despair that could follow, it becomes important to change expectations and find joy where you can in your life every day.

    This is World Alzheimer's Month. A good time to raise awareness and support further research for this crippling disease for which there is no cure.

    1. Alzheimer's in a loved one scares me for than anything else, even cancer. To watch someone become unable to even remember a spouse's name or any details of one's life is horrific.

      You are so right about health. There are countless stories of perfectly toned athletes who drop dead. There are countless others who smoke and drink, eat poorly, and never exercise, and still live to 100. So much is predetermined by our genes that doing everything right may not matter in the long run. AS you state, attitude then must kick in, because that is determined by us.

  4. Deb and I seem to find ourselves in a geographic area that appears to have a number of retirees that are all managing well between their savings, SS, pensions, and health insurance. It could color my opinion in that I could think that most or the vast majority of retirees are in the same state, but I am not naive enough to feel that way. Many are in a dire state as you point out. But I have to ask, how much of that is self-inflicted? For those that fall into that category, whether because of a refusal to save, a drug or alcohol habit, multiple failed marriages, and so on, I have little sympathy. For others who through no fault of their own find themselves in poor straits, say due to unforseen medical issues, I have great sympathy for. The issue becomes how to we exclude one class and not the other with assistance of varying kinds; it cannot be done. At the same time impoverishing those who played the game correctly to help those who did not only insures that all wind up in the latter category.

    I don't have an easy answer for those who find themselves in a precarious situation, since each is different with different potential skill sets. What Deb and I can do, besides helping our local community and elderly individuals as we are doing, is to continue to be good shepherds of whatever financial assets we have been blessed with, and to make smart decisions with our finances. That way we can hopefully never become a burden on our daughter, since that could start the same vicious cycle with the next generation that the country is experiencing now. As you and others said, Bob, there are no easy answers. Perhaps acknowledging the problem that the country is facing will help many address it, and that would be a start.

    1. Even if someone through poor choices finds him or herself in trouble, I believe it is our duty to do what we can to ease their suffering. That might mean volunteering in a homeless shelter, delivering meals on wheels, or simply being a companion to a lonely shut-in. While I agree it isn't fair for government to bail out everyone, as a Christian I am not allowed to sit idly by. Tough? You bet. Do I live up to these words as often as I should? Not even close.

  5. I have no answers for this, but remind myself daily that this could be me as well - we just got lucky, whether through accidents of birth, or making the right decision at a key point, or not getting ill or whatever. IMHO, we demonize or ignore those who are struggling, for whatever reason, at our own peril. We as a society need less judgment and more empathy.

    One of the many things we've noticed here in Hawai'i is the number of multigenerational families in our neighborhood. Most are three generations living under one roof, but a couple have four. We see the elderly out every day doing chores, watching kids, and so forth while others work. It's mainly done for economic reasons, but culture also plays a strong part - it's not seen as odd, or that you're struggling, if you live in a house with other family members. Housing is expensive here, and this is one way families are making it work. Living together cuts costs for everyone, and gives the people who are working a chance to save for their own homes. There's also no need to pay for childcare, or elder care. Anyway, this is a far more common occurrence here in Hawai'i than back on the mainland, except possibly with immigrant families, where the extended family home is a cultural tradition.

    I know in my own family this was happening as little as two to three generations ago. Families moved in together if needed and helped each other out. If there was a "difficult" family member you dealt with it. My great-grandparents lived with my grandparents until their deaths (no Social Security back then); my father's mother lived with an aunt and her family. It was the same in my husband's family. But then both sides drifted into the "don't want mom/dad living with me" and the "don't want to be a burden for my kids" camp. We invited both my mom and dad to live with us at points in the past but they both refused. In hindsight it would have been difficult, but not impossible. Children move back to their parent's home for all sorts of reasons; the reverse should also be seen as a normal solution if circumstances require it, but right now it isn't. Of course the question is would my children want me or my husband to live with them, and possibly care for us later? It's hard to say now, especially since we have three just starting out (i.e. college).

    1. Thanks for making the point about multi-generational family units. I have been to Hawaii enough to know what you say is absolutely true. the concept of extended Ohana (family) is just a way of life on the islands. It is uncommon on the mainland, but I believe will become more "accepted" as other options become too expensive. Having a few generations sharing a life benefits everyone. Of course it is more work and sometimes limiting. But, family is worth it.

  6. Excellent information and I really like how you characterized our health care mess as a moral problem.

    My husband and I have (at least so far) a satisfying retirement. Our biggest concern is that since we have no children, our future care is very concerning. Even though we have Long Term Care insurance, choosing someone to make medical and financial decisions for us will be a challenge. Maybe that would be an interesting topic to take up in the future.

    1. Good idea. How to pick someone or some organization to handle your affairs when you can't is a very important decision. I will do some research on some suggested guidelines and cautions and work on a post sometime later in October. Thanks!

  7. I started my blog: Lemonaderetirement focusing on this segment of the Baby Boomer population, hoping to be of some help, a place for this group to talk with one another. Six months later, I must admit that it is indeed a tough subject. I think we are destined to see more and more people leaving the USA for places you can live for half the cost of living here. As far as healthcare, my research indicates that better quality healthcare is available for a fraction of what it costs here all over the world.

    1. You are absolutely correct about the cost of healthcare: America has the most expensive care, by far, with no better results. I have no idea where this all going to lead.