Planning for Incapacity

Margaret Atkins MunroLet's Talk About MoneyLeave a Comment

I look at the world through the same eyes I used when I was 15, 25, 35 and 50; it’s my body that’s changed. At 35, I felt too young to be a mother. Now, I’ve finally made my peace with the motherhood gig, but I’m having difficulties dealing with the indignities of middle age. In my mind, I’m ageless—too young for arthritis, too young to have cholesterol issues, too young to have to drink decaf, and too young to have “senior moments”.

Agelessness is a fantasy, if an optimistic one, that doesn’t allow for anyone around me to grow old, or diminish in any way. So it hit me hard last week to learn that the husband of a close friend had suffered a serious stroke. After all, if I’m ageless, he should be, too. And yet, his reality shifted in a way that only reality can, sudden and seismic.

I belong to the Baby Boom generation, and we are demographically approaching the age when stroke is most prevalent. We may exercise more, eat better, and live longer than preceding generations, but we will not be able to hold off the infirmities and indignities that often march in lock-step with age forever. And we are, I think, ill-equipped to deal with any changes, whether small or profound, in our general health. This reality is hitting very close to home, as I watch my own husband ail and age with acute and chronic ill health.

These changes, sadly, carry with them huge financial consequences. My friend, who has two school-aged children, now must factor additional healthcare costs into her budget. She and her husband may now be forced to make choices previously off their radar. Will they be able to continue living in a house with stairs, for example, or must they now begin looking at single level living? And in their two-income life, what will the loss of even a portion of his income mean for the future? What does this do to their retirement planning, or their commitment to their children’s educations?

My friend and I—and so many others in our circle that I am losing count—are now paired with spouses quite changed from those we married. The full implication of our wedding vows, in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer, to love and to cherish, are only becoming apparent now. We don’t get to choose what happens. Charmed lives can descend into nightmare territory in the blink of an eye. No one is immune from the possibility, regardless of age, or circumstance. The only insurance any of us can have is in our level of preparedness. We must have crisis planning as much in life as we require emergency exits in our homes, schools and offices.

It is impossible to plan for every eventuality, but the following list, which is in no particular order, is a good place to start:

 Preventive care rules! Have regular physicals. They won’t make your aches and pains go away, but it’s better to know what ails you than not, and the excuse that you don’t trust, or like, doctors is a bubble just waiting to be burst;

 Make sure you and your spouse have an up-to-date estate plan, including alternative guardians for any minor children, health care proxies, living wills and powers of attorney. An estate plan covers far more than just your Last Will and Testament—it also controls what happens if you are incapacitated;

 Share finances and financial decisions. It is not okay for one partner to handle all the money if the other partner has no idea of what is happening. Incapacity can strike at any time, and a partner who is in the dark financially will not be able to unravel the strings immediately. Financial disasters (unfiled tax returns, for example, or bank accounts that mysteriously disappear) don’t happen overnight, but a partner who abdicates all responsibility for the family’s finances may not find out until a foreclosure notice is slapped on the door or a tax lien on the bank account;

 Pay attention to your partner’s health. Normal aging causes many changes, but not all are benign. Take note of things like memory lapses, changes in sleep patterns, loss of appetite, weight gain or loss, or any other physical or mental sign that things are not right. You are the person who knows your partner best. Take that responsibility seriously.

My intent is not to alarm, but to alert. Incapacitating events can happen to anyone, at any time, suddenly or gradually, whether through illness or accident. They are not a respecter of age, intelligence, general fitness, or wealth. We Boomers are not going gently into that good night, but we are going regardless. Our generation’s final description should not be that we all believed we were Peter Pan, but rather, that we were prepared to meet our realities head on, that we took control, and that we did so with grace and courage.