Thursday, June 08, 2006

Planning Ahead

About five years ago my parents had their geriatric meltdown, and now, this year, my in-laws are having theirs. Both sets of parents have led different lives, made different choices, and those choices have had and are having an impact on us, as the kids. My mother is also elderly and has made choices that affect us as well.

It’s a little strange being a middle-aged kid, with kids of my own, and having my parents’ decisions still have an impact on me – my time, my peace of mind, my adaptability, my sense of mortality, etc..

When I step back and look at how my parents’ choices and those of my in-laws, some of which are decades old, have effects rippling through to the present, it makes me examine my own life a little more closely, and it makes me think about the choices and decisions I might want to make right now. Having a chance to compare and contrast the differences is enlightening and thought-provoking.

A few of the areas that I’m thinking about more are:

Clutter – Possessions can rule our lives, acquiring them and desiring them seems to take up so much time, energy, and emotion. I was never really on the “keep up with the Joneses” bandwagon to the extent that some people are, but I admit to keeping a box or two of sentimental things, collecting bits and bobs, amassing a vast number of books, a huge yarn stash, and not getting rid of outdated, outworn, or other clothing I really don’t wear.

When I lived with my Dad and Stepmom, I had good clutter control habits, largely due to the brisk, efficient mentality and mentoring of my Stepmom. Her motto was “if you haven’t used it in two years, get rid of it.” She followed that motto, to the best of my knowledge, right up until the end. My Dad did, too.

They moved to Portugal for their early retirement years, sold all their furniture, reduced their possessions to two large suitcases each, put the silver cutlery and family heirloom chest in my charge, and toddled off. They lived in a furnished apartment and spent their money on events, vacations, and other temporary, consumable things. When they returned to the states, they began acquiring things again, but stuck to pitching things that were unused.

As a result, clearing up the material aspects of their lives was fairly easy. They had already sorted through mementoes and dispersed them. An estate auction firm collected their furniture and paid us a nominal amount. Church charities took canned goods, small appliances, and kitchenware. Clothing was again reduced to two suitcases, and the rest given to Goodwill. It all went swiftly, smoothly, and without a lot of sentimental weeping and emotionalism. They had made, and acted upon, the decision themselves so we didn’t have to.

My mom did something similar – she weeded out her possessions, gave them away as she saw fit, and now she’s in assisted living, in a small apartment, with only the things that are truly dear to her. My in-laws are in a different position, they’ve been married over 50 years and have a house jammed to the rafters of stuff that will eventually be determined to be mostly junk – newspaper clippings of interest only to them, back issues of magazines, a storage shed full of rusty junk, a basement full of things that could easily go to charity and never be missed.

Sure, there are some sentimental treasures and a few nice items in among the vast, tottering piles of chaff, but if my mother-in-law doesn’t act on it herself, it will fall to the children to do so, and without her making the choices now of what has worth and what does not, it’ll need to be sorted, which will require time and induce stress, grief and sadness in the children.

Finances – My folks had, of necessity, simplified their investments, banking, and income sources before moving to Portugal. This made organizing their bills and medical EOBs, and understanding the flow of money comparatively easy. It took about a month to redirect bills, assess needs, and make arrangements, and the system is working well to this day. My mom had done her spend-down a decade in advance of when she finally made her move to assisted living, leaving her with nothing to manage except her pension and social security. She is managing her greatly simplified finances herself and finds enough room in her budget for the occasional treat, gifts to grandkids, and small day trips.

My in-laws finances are sprayed all over the place like cat piss. There are accounts in three different banks in this state, an investment fund here, a different one through a financial planner, and, with the death of my uncle-in-law, banks, funds, property, etc. in another state to deal with. Taxes haven’t been filed, we can’t locate all the creditors, we’re not sure we’ve found all the assets or investments… It’s a freakin’ nightmare. And the thing is, there just isn’t that much money to need to shelter it in so many places. It was bad advice, bad planning, too much secretiveness, and not enough experience. Luckily, my uncle was a saver and a planner, so his stuff isn’t quite so hard to assemble and simplify.

Self-determination“If you don’t make choices for yourself when you are able, someone else will make them for you when you are not.” When it comes to housing and all associated considerations as an older person, my Dad and Stepmom didn’t make prudent choices. They delayed, stalled, denied, wouldn’t make hard choices, told masking lies, and wound up living in a precarious situation – too independent for too long, and, like frogs in a pot on the stove, they didn’t notice as things degenerated over time. It took a third party, social services, and physicians (who were really not very much on the ball at all) to bring their needs to light.

My Mom did plan ahead. She realized when her physical limitations were requiring increased assistance, she let those lead her into making the choice to move to assisted living, and she is having the best time of her life now – involved, quality care handy and reliable, etc. Pats on the back to her. My in-laws are in that transition phase that I recognize from my folks situation – more than they can handle, and the choices now have more to do with medical considerations than they do with quality of life.

Support groups/social circles – This is where my in-laws really shine. They have lived in their community for over 50 years, in the same house, going to the same church, engaging in social activities with the same general circle of friends. As a result, those friends are a wealth of support and useful information for them. It was a friend who called us to let us know she was concerned about my father-in-law’s health. It is friends who are making sure to keep my mother-in-law involved and active, taking her to lunch, making sure she goes to church, and offering advice on home maintenance services that may make it possible for her to remain safely independent for longer. It’s friends who stop by to visit my father-in-law in the hospital; friends who recommend care facilities through experience, investigation, and persuasion. These are friends made during leisure hours, not work friends.

It’s funny how people spend so much of their lives at work, and how little that counts in support. No one from my parents’ workplaces is still in touch with them.

Family isn’t the support system it used to be either. We kids all live states away and don’t call or visit with any great frequency. Moving closer to family and expecting them to help you out, as my mother did, really doesn’t work. My Dad and Stepmom did that, too. What no one seems to think of is that those family members are older, too, and they’ve been living for decades without you being a part of their lives. To expect them to drop everything they’ve been doing for yonks and rearrange their lives around your current proximity and needs is unrealistic. That came as a surprise to my Mom, and she wound up moving back to the area where she had spent the majority of her adult life. That’s working out great because it’s her social friends who are keeping her engaged and productive.

There are dozens of other issues involved in getting older. These are the ones on my mind today, and I think that if I really want to consider myself a good parent, I need to realize that the choices I make today will impact my kids in 20 or 30 or 40 years, too. I may not enjoy the drabness of a small town, but maybe I should emerge from my habitual isolation, created as a stay-at-home mom over many years, and engage more in the community.

Maybe it’s really time to find a church I like and start going regularly. I have already joined a couple of social groups and intend to keep those connections alive and active. It will be a great gift to my children, as they get older, move away, and have lives of their own, to know that I am cared about by others as well. It will help them sleep easier at night and feel calmer to know that I’m taking care of myself in the ways that count, and that I’m looking ahead to make my golden years simpler and more manageable. They need to know, as their lives become complex, that they are not going to have to take responsibility for me, too, that I have done so already.

I know I need to make a plan to shed possessions and follow through. I need to convince my husband of that as well.

I’ve already started consolidating finances and creating a paper trail to make it easier for myself, my spouse, and kids to follow, when the need arises. I have our wills and POA’s signed and ready, and can change them as needed. I’m still verbally duking it out with my husband as to how much paperwork is actually necessary to keep around. I don’t want my kids to have to sift through it, and I’m pretty damned tired of all of it myself.

There is so very much to do, and I hope there will be plenty of time for me to do it all. Wish me luck!

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