Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Health Care Shock

Health care reform has certainly been front and center recently among the issues being pursued by the current administration. I’m particularly interested in following progress on this reform, which I feel is much needed. Now approaching my 54th birthday, I am forced to pay more attention to the shadow cast by my past health issues as my COBRA is about to expire and I search for individual health insurance.

I consider myself to be in pretty good health – certainly better now it’s been more than 7 years since I survived colon cancer. Over the past 17 months, I have lost 25 pounds. I have been able to go from 3 prescription medications down to just 1 (for cholesterol). With regular exercise and a low carb diet, I am keeping Type II Diabetes at bay. I see my primary care doctor once a year for labs and a physical. But I have already been rejected for coverage by one major health provider based on my medical history. I’m on to applying to others, but am not terribly hopeful. I may be about to become one of the many Americans without health care coverage, unless we can come up with a creative solution. We’re smart – we’ll figure it out. But it pisses me off that this situation makes me feel that the security of my happy life is threatened.

The forms that have to be filled out to apply for medical coverage are very detailed. In addition to asking about major health issues, like cancer, diabetes or AIDS, you may be surprised to know that they ask whether you have recently or ever been “advised, counseled, tested, diagnosed, treated, hospitalized or recommended for treatment” for any of the following: alcohol use or abuse, illegal drugs, migraines or headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, attention deficit disorder, any form of therapy or counseling, heart condition, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, allergies, sinusitis, bronchitis, hemorrhoids, ulcers, hernia, hepatitis, cysts, psoriasis, acne, breast implants, arthritis, bursitis, thyroid disorder, hearing loss, sexually transmitted disease, warts, impotence…and the list goes on and on. Oh, and are you taking any prescription drugs, do you or have you ever smoked or chewed tobacco, are you pregnant? Are you getting the picture?? (BTW, I’m thinking I should get a credit for any missing parts that have simplified my anatomy and completely eliminated risk of a handful of serious diseases.)

If you do not understand that health care reform is an imperative for our country, I will bet that at least one of the following is true for you: (1) You have always had health insurance through your employer that did not require a physical or a review of your medical history, (2) None of your close friends or relatives have become ill or died as a result of a lack of medical attention due to financial reasons, or (3) You have never really been sick or required a major medical procedure that makes you fear for your long term well being.

We need reasonably priced health care options that allow individuals to preserve their own personal security, while incenting us all to lead healthy lives. Why wouldn’t we want that for our country?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Echoes of The Past

Ron and I are on vacation this week in Wells, Maine. Yesterday we met my sister and my mother at Rye Beach, NH. Rye Beach is where my family spent a week or two every year on our summer vacation. It’s a quiet, uncommercialized community that hasn’t changed much in the fifty years we’ve been going there. The beach is broad and deep, the sand clean and soft, and beautiful old homes line the shore.

Over the years, I would come to Rye with my parents, my two sisters, and my little brother. We would rent a cottage on Cable Road – but pretty much all daylight hours would be spent on the beach. We’d swim in the waves, dig in the sand, walk for miles, collect shells and beach stones, surf with boogie boards, catch crabs and starfish in our pails, and even eat breakfast and lunch on the beach. When we climbed, exhausted, into bed at night - we still had sand on our feet.

My Yiayia and Papou (my Greek grandparents) often spent time with us at Rye. Yiayia grew up on the Greek island of Rhodes, so had the ocean in her blood. My Aunt Katee would sometimes visit from New York City. Back in the 1960’s she was young, beautiful, and exotically interesting and eccentric. Father George Pappaiouannou (the priest who performed our marriage ceremony), and his wife and three girls also were frequent guests in Rye. I still remember Father George relaxing on the beach with us in his priest’s collar, black shorts, and black high top sneakers! Time at Rye was magical.

Rye is fondly ensconced in my memory; inseparably connected with family, fun, youth, love, and warmth. I still enjoy spending time there, but it has changed for me and become bittersweet with memories. My father died ten years ago. Yiayia and Papou have been gone for years. Katee passed away when she was about my age today, from cancer. We lost Father George the same year Dad died. My sisters and brother are spread around the country, and although we remain close, we don’t get to see each other often enough. Mom is thankfully still with us, but I understand how she sometimes feels lonely, with so many ghosts around. I see them sometimes at Rye – Dad gazing out to the ocean’s horizon…Yiayia laughing and lounging in the sun…Katee, glorious in her polka dot bikini with her long black hair blowing in the wind…Father George talking to his daughters in his gentle voice.

Grab all the moments you have with your loved ones, and make opportunities to create special memories. There will come a time when those memories are painfully precious.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Lifestyle Changes During Retirement

Ron and I think about our retirement years in several phases. This is helpful for planning and budgeting purposes. Each phase is a lifestyle change, but the transition between these stages will likely be gradual. You may have fewer or more phases, and they will be defined by your personal situation, wants and needs.

First, there are the “Early Retirement” years. Regardless of when you retire, this is a period of euphoria, recovery, and adjustment. You are redefining who you are and how you spend your time. Interested in doing all the things you didn’t have time to do before, you can now make time for regular exercise, reading, healthy and leisurely meals, pleasure travel – whatever makes you happy. To stay engaged, you may still want to do a little part time work (volunteer or paid) in a field that interests you. Your health is hopefully still pretty good, so you can be involved in activities you enjoy. Your budget will most likely be higher than in later years.

Next come the “Middle Retirement” years. Been there, done that, and you will be more ready to settle down. You will probably living in the last home you will own, in the locale of your choice, near friends and/or family. Less active and mobile now, you’ll have routines and pastimes that keep you closer to the comfort of home. There may be medical issues to manage, and having health care professionals you know and trust becomes a priority. Your budget settles down too, and expenses are easily projected. Life will be simpler, and your spending will reflect a desire to keep it so.

The “Late Retirement” years are the most difficult to think about. Inevitably, they are associated with old age and end of life. The worst thing we can think of is being incapacitated and unable to care for ourselves – especially if we don’t have the financial means to obtain managed care. (Me; I’m aiming for the end coming suddenly on a beautiful day on the golf course – but I don’t think I get that choice.) Our plan and budget includes selling a home and liquidating other assets to move into some sort of assisted living facility together. We are hoping that the aging of the Baby Boomers continues to drive the establishment of more, and more attractive, assisted living options to help us gracefully approach the end of our lives.

Your retirement plan and budget will need to address the phases of retirement you foresee, and the lifestyle associated with each. Hone your dreams to account for the eventual changes coming in your lives.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Visualize Your Retired Life

So far my blogs about retirement planning have covered the foundation of the process…examining your current spending habits, aligning spending with your priorities, and options for saving. Next, we’ll explore how to project what your expenses will be over the years AFTER retirement, calculating how much money you need to amass in preparation to retire, and gaining confidence that your plan is viable.

But before we can move on with financial planning, I need to encourage you to dream. Yes, DREAM! If you develop a vision of the life you want to leave after your work years, you can more easily create a plan focused to achieve your goals. So dream, think, and talk about your future – with your spouse, family, and friends. The more you do so, the more real and specific the ideas will become.

Some decisions will directly drive your planning, including where you will live, and in what type of home. This will drive your housing costs, which are often a large percentage of monthly expenses. Health insurance may also be a major expense, especially if you have chronic health issues. Your retirement budget will need to account for your appetite for travel, entertainment, hobbies, personal grooming, insurance, taxes, a new car every however many years, moving expenses, etc.

Don’t forget that your activities and lifestyle (and therefore your expenses) will change as you age. Eventually you may need to sell a home and arrange for assisted living. Thinking about this stage of your life may be a little hard to face, but is necessary. Know state laws where you will live. Consult a lawyer. Obtain a living will and a last will. Make your own decisions for your life, while you’re in a position to consider them objectively.

Recognize that your vision for your retired life may change over time. I’ve read that some retirees move to their dream location, and then discover that they miss their friends and the familiarity of an area in which they lived for years. It’s easy to romanticize a vacation destination, only to find that it’s another thing entirely to live there year round. Ideally, there will be enough flexibility in your plan to allow for a change of heart.

Sit down and relax and let your mind wander. How do you see yourself living happily 10, 20, 30 years from now? Now add a dose of practicality (OK-maybe you can’t live in a mansion in the Hamptons). Next week, we’ll look at a methodology for modeling a plan to make the vision a reality.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Living the Dream

Sometimes I just have to stop what I am doing, look at Ron, and say with wonder, “We are living the dream, baby.” All the years of hard work, planning, and saving have given us a new freedom. We are so thankful for each day. Not every day is remarkable, but collectively they are a huge blessing.

Yesterday we went to the driving range and stopped for blue margaritas and nachos at the sidewalk café of a Mexican restaurant on Halsted. Today we played nine holes of golf at Waveland on the most beautiful morning imaginable, with Lake Michigan twinkling in the background. Afterward I soaked my poor sore muscles in a lavender chamomile bubble bath. Tomorrow evening we plan to dress up to go to a rooftop lounge downtown with our neighbor, Steve, for a chance to catch up and be sociable.

The Chicago summer is waning and the Cubs aren’t going to make the playoffs; but we have three trips to look forward to. We’ll spend several weeks in New Hampshire and Maine in September, cruise Italy and Greece later in the fall, and take the train to Memphis for Thanksgiving. Then we have to hunker down for the winter.

Winter will mean books and movies, the NFL, hot soups and casseroles, napping in front of the fireplace, and a quiet Christmas at home. We’ll plan several outings to the symphony and the theater to avoid cabin fever. When the cold weather and snow drags on into March, we may book another trip to warmer parts – probably Arizona. Then we’ll start looking forward to hints of spring.

There are still life concerns for us, like finding new health care when COBRA runs out in November. We worry about family members and friends who have issues. Staying safe and secure living in an urban area cannot be taken for granted. But these things seem manageable, without the day to day stress and pressure of working.

Living the dream, baby…