March 5, 2019
Books: Where the Elderly Find Happiness
Aging is not, as the cliché goes, for the faint of heart. If a woman makes it to 65, she can expect to live at least 20 more years. Three new books written by or about the elderly provide a wonderful roadmap to aging with grace, introspection, gratitude, and humor.
“Coming of Age: My Journey to the Eighties” by Madeleine May Kunin
The former Vermont governor and ambassador to Switzerland has authored books about politics, feminism, and women as leaders. In her new memoir, she has blossomed into an essayist and poet. Kunin, who is 85, muses about defying “death’s black raven” on her shoulder. The color red is one way to achieve this. She bought a Barcelona Red Prius (easier to find in the parking lot), and then she and her late husband, John, purchased two oversized red armchairs. “I wanted to bring life inside – not leave it outdoors. And the red chairs did exactly that,” she says.
In her poem, “I Loved You When You Did the Dishes,” she writes tenderly of John – first as a robust partner, then as a dependent, and always as “the man of my dreams.” Old age has given her permission to let down her guard, which she did not do as a public figure. Now she discloses private matters like thinning skin and her pain when, as a young legislator in the 1970s, male colleagues didn’t take her seriously. But she invariably looks back on her life with humor. Kunin tells one anecdote about ducking into a men’s bathroom to avoid the long line for the women’s room. A man who recognized her immediately said, “I never thought I’d meet the governor here.”
“Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age” by Mary Pipher
Early in her book, Pipher borrows a novelist’s words: “Old age transfigures or fossilizes.” Pipher, who is a psychologist, urges women to aim for transformation or “willing ourselves into a good new place.” The most important thing, she says, is to keep moving along, upriver – memory loss, muscle loss, and stereotypes be damned! Each chapter is a roadmap to that good place: Understanding Ourselves. Making Intentional Choices. Building a Good Day. Creating Community. Anchoring in Gratitude. In the chapter Crafting Resplendent Narratives, she advises readers dealing with difficult situations to “honor our pain and move toward something joyful.” …Learn More
February 19, 2019
Tweaking Social Security for the Future
Social Security remains as vital today as it was after its 1935 passage. But advocates for the nation’s most vulnerable retirees have proposed ways to enhance their benefits.
Consider the minimum benefit. Put on the books in the early 1970s, its goal was to prevent poverty among retirees who had worked for decades in low-paying jobs. The benefit’s value has diminished due to a design flaw that rendered it largely ineffective.
A recent policy brief by the Center for Retirement Research analyzed various modest proposals to increase the minimum benefit and improve low-income retirees’ financial security.
This brief was the last in a series on modernizing Social Security. The relatively low cost of these proposals, many of which have bipartisan support, could be offset by benefit reductions for less-vulnerable retirees. The House of Representatives is planning hearings later this year looking into ways benefits might be enhanced.
The following are synopses of the policy problems and proposals discussed in the other briefs and covered in previous blogs: …Learn More
December 18, 2018
Holidays with Dementia in the Family
When my grandmother was spirited away by dementia and no longer recognized me, I stopped visiting her in the nursing home.
I didn’t understand this at the time but now think that I just wanted to remember her baking lemon cream pies or waving at me as she rode around on her lawnmower cropping the lot next to her Indiana farmhouse.
I wish I could get another chance and do things better this time. Regret is hard to live with.
Psychologist Ann Kaiser Stearns views the holidays as a precious time of year to make elderly family members feel they are loved and included in the festivities.
“People respond for as long as they live to smiles, to touch, to music, to kindness, to sitting in the sun, to pumpkin pies,” Stearns, a professor of behavioral science, said in an interview.
“We just need to remember that all of that nourishes an elderly person to whatever degree they have impairments,” said Stearns, who also wrote “Redefining Age: A Caregiver’s Guide to Living Your Best Life.”
Stearns encourages people to make an extra effort to connect with a loved one over the holidays and provides some tips:
Be patient. Take the extra time to sit down with your parent, aunt, or uncle and talk to them. Encourage them to reminisce. “Don’t do something if you don’t have the time,” Stearns said.
Be present. If grandma doesn’t remember you or something that happened in the past, do not argue with her or ask, “Why don’t you remember?!” She advised that it’s better to say, “Remember grandma, it’s your granddaughter from Baltimore.” When an elderly person repeats or forgets, connect with them where they are now, even if it means going through the same conversation again.
Stir sweet memories. Stearns said that her friend’s father, a former minister, has Alzheimer’s but the friend brings him to church anyway. When Stearns’ parents were old, they used to sit happily watching the squirrels in their yard while her father smoked cigars. It’s important to repeat rituals that are uplifting and have always brought meaning to their lives. …Learn More
December 13, 2018
Reducing Poverty for Our Oldest Retirees
With more Americans today living into their 80s and beyond, the elderly are becoming more vulnerable to slipping into poverty.
To reduce the poverty risk facing the oldest retirees, some policy experts have proposed increasing Social Security benefits for everyone at age 85. Under one common proposal analyzed by the Center for Retirement Research in a new report, the current benefit at this age would increase by
The poverty rate for people over 85 is 12 percent, compared with 8 percent for new retirees. But more elderly people may actually be living on the edge, because the income levels that define poverty for them are so low: less than $11,757 for a single person and less than $14,817 for couples.
One reason the oldest retirees are especially vulnerable is that their medical expenses are rising as their health is deteriorating, yet they’re too old to defray the expense by working. This is occurring at the same time that the value of their employer pensions – if they have one – has been severely eroded by inflation after many years of retirement.
Further, elderly women are more likely to be poor than men, because wives usually outlive their husbands, which triggers a big drop in income that is generally not fully offset by a drop in their expenses.
Limiting the 5 percent benefit increase to the oldest retirees would ease poverty while containing the cost. …Learn More
August 28, 2018
Medigap Premiums Differ by Thousands
- A 65-year-old woman in Houston can pay $5,300 a year for Medigap’s Plan C policy or she can buy a policy with exactly the same coverage from another insurance company for $1,700 a year.
- A 65-year-old Hartford, Connecticut, man can spend anywhere from $2,900 to $7,400 annually for the most popular and comprehensive Medigap policy – Plan F.
- The price disparity for Plan A for a 75-year-old man in Manchester, New Hampshire, is also large: anywhere from $1,820 to $6,301.
These are fairly typical of the enormous differences in the premiums that consumers across the country are paying for their Medigap policies.
The price disparities are “extraordinary and unable to be justified purely by the coverage that they’re offering,” said Gavin Magor, director of ratings for Weiss Ratings Inc., a consumer-oriented company that assesses insurance companies’ financial stability.
A nationwide analysis by Weiss shows that the premiums vary widely within each group of plans – Medigap Plans A, B, C through N – despite the fact that the coverage in each group is dictated by the federal government and does not change from one insurer to the next. Every company selling a Plan F policy, for example, must offer exactly the same coverage. (The exceptions are Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, where the states regulate their Medigap plans.)
If two people are buying a Chevrolet Camaro in Houston, “you would not expect one person to pay two or three times more than the other one,” Magor said.
Medigap is an added layer of insurance to supplement Medicare for people over 65. The additional coverage helps them with the copayments, deductibles, skilled nursing, and other charges that Medicare does not pay for.
Weiss supplied the data for this article by comparing Medigap premiums sold in each zip code and separately for men and women and for different age groups. The company based the analysis on premiums at more than 170 insurance companies.
There are a few viable explanations for the disparity in premiums. Urban and rural zip codes in the same state may be priced differently, in part because medical costs tend to be higher in the cities. And some insurers might be able to offer lower premiums, either because they are more efficient or are trying to be more price competitive to gain market share.
But Magor said that none of these explanations can fully account for the enormous price differences within zip codes. Many insurers are overcharging for their Medigap policies, he said.
A spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, which represents health insurers, said she could not comment on Weiss’ information without the organization doing its own analysis of the data.
Paying too much for a Medigap plan can have a material impact on a retiree’s life. …
June 14, 2018
Health in Old Age: the Great Unknown
This cartoon, by Vancouver Sun cartoonist Graham Harrop, hits on one of retirees’ biggest mysteries: their future health.
The elderly live with the anxiety of getting a grave illness that isn’t easy to fix, such as cancer or a stroke. And despite having Medicare insurance, they also have to worry how much it would cost them and whether they would run through all of their savings.
They’re right to worry. Health care costs increase as people age from their 50s into their 60s and 70s. About one in five baby boomers between 55 and 64 pays extraordinary out-of-pocket medical expenses in any given year. But by 75, the odds increase to one in four, according to a report summarizing the reasons that some seniors’ finances become fragile.
Large, unexpected medical expenses are one of two major financial shocks that threaten their security – widowhood is the other. A small and unlucky share of retirees will find it difficult to absorb a spike in their medical costs, forcing them to cut back on food or medications, the report said.
Harrop’s cartoon is the product of his cousin’s inspired suggestion that he fill a book with cartoons about the humorous accommodations made between couples who’ve lived together for decades. The book – “Living Together after Retirement: or, There’s a Spouse in the House” – reveals his personal knowledge of the subject. Harrop, who is 73, has lived with his partner, Annie, for more than 20 years.Learn More
April 3, 2018
Dependence on Social Security is Striking
A retiree’s sources of money are often described as a three-legged stool: Social Security, pension, and savings.
But many seniors’ financial support looks more like a single, sturdy pillar: Social Security.
This is shown dramatically in new U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) estimates of just how critical the federal program is to millions of older Americans. The data speak for themselves:
- One in two retired households counts on Social Security for at least 50 percent of their total income.
- One in four gets virtually all income – 90 percent – from the program.
The differences among myriad demographic groups also follow the usual socioeconomic patterns, according to the SSA researchers, Irena Dushi, Howard M. Iams, and Brad Trenkamp. …Learn More