January – Aging in Place Takes Change
February – Aging in Place in Reverse
March – Aging in Place and Choices for Care
April – Getting and Giving Hugs
May – Building Bridges
June – The Sandwich Generation
July – Long Distance Caring
August – Hard Times
September – Older Vets, Newer Benefits
October – The One Number to Know
November – Keep Driving – Safely
December – Holiday Time is an Aging in Place Opportunity

Scott Funk is the 2006 recipient of the Champlain Valley Agency on Aging’s Aging Advocate Award. He is Vermont’s leading Aging in Place advocate, writing and speaking around the state on issues of concern to retirees and their families.
He provides this column to newspapers and magazines each month. If you’d like to read it in your local paper, please let them know or contact us with the name.
Scott works as a Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM) Specialist.

January 2008

Aging in Place Takes Change

One of the greatest challenges aging presents may be the changes forced upon us. This is doubly so since many of us are less inclined to embrace change the older we get.

We all know someone who won’t use an answering machine, but worries about missed calls. Or a widow or widower who insists on banking where they and their spouse did, even though that bank has changed hands three times and none of the old familiar faces even work there any more.

Grief and loss can accompany change, but so can opportunity and benefits, no matter what our age. I’m reminded of how hard my dad resisted wearing his hearing aid and how much more he enjoyed life once his hearing was restored to him. He was trying not to grow old or look older than he felt, but missing out on the conversations and music he loved so dearly was a very high price to pay.

Change can offer unexpected opportunities, if we are open. The Internet once seemed like the domain of the young, but retirees are going online in ever increasing numbers. Through the internet a new world is opening up. One of my clients surfs the net, searching out old friends from high school. Another has created a vibrant online business.

It is by adjustment and accommodation we maintain youthfulness and agility. Time is like an opponent in judo. Resistance can wear us out and accomplishes little, but if we accept changes, we can stay independent longer.

Take my knees. They are the old knees of an over-exuberant skier who loved moguls. They are also the knees of a guy nearly 60 who loves to dance. It makes me feel old every time I put on my knee braces before going out. I hate it, but on the dance floor I can last longer and float lighter. With the braces I’m up on my toes instead of back in a chair, watching. I’m not any younger, but I’m having more fun.

Aging in Place, it doesn’t happen by accident.

February 2008

Aging in Place in Reverse

It seems suddenly half the commercials and a lot of the news stories on TV are about reverse mortgages. As we live longer, healthier and more active lives, more retirees are considering reverse mortgages to help them remain in their homes. For people who have worked hard to stay out of debt, this can feel like going in reverse.

What exactly is a reverse mortgage? It is a home equity loan for people 62 and older. The advantage for retirees is that there are no monthly payments; you borrow the money you spend, and you borrow the fees and interest payments, as well. You also earn interest on the equity you haven’t borrowed yet, your “credit line”. The mortgage doesn’t have to be repaid as long as you live in your home.

Reverse mortgages serve a unique purpose, but they aren’t for everyone or every situation. They are more expensive than regular mortgages. The closing costs are higher, although they are part of the loan. So, they usually aren’t for short term fixes.

Last year, almost 300 people a day got reverse mortgages insured by the federal government through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Along with this rising popularity, have come concerns about deceptive marketing and lending practices. It is important to talk to people you trust. Most local banks don’t offer these loans, but they may recommend someone local who does.

For someone who is considering a reverse mortgage, there are many sources of good information. FHA’s website at hud.gov.org has information about reverse mortgages. AARP offers an excellent free booklet. You can order it by calling their toll-free number, 1-866-227-7451 or go to their web site. www.aarp.org. The National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association, www.nrmla.org offer a state by state listing of members who agree to their Code of Ethics.

As we live longer, issues of financial security challenge everyone. Exploring our options increases control of our choices.

Aging in Place, it doesn’t happen by accident.

March 2008

Aging in Place and Choices for Care

Choices for Care is Vermont’s effort to improve and increase the options available to Medicaid and medically eligible Vermonters. Gone are the days of being faced with either going to a nursing home or struggling on alone. For example, the program allows for patient direction about who should provide support. This includes the option to pay a family member or spouse.

For many of us, increased choices don’t make things easier to understand. Confusion often starts with the differences between types of insurance coverage.

First, there is medical insurance. Depending on the policy, it may cover doctor and hospital visits and prescription drugs. Co-pays, deductibles and coverage differ from policy to policy.

Medicare is federal insurance for everyone over 65. When signing the law creating Medicare, President Johnson said, “No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine. No longer will illness crush and destroy the savings that they have so carefully put away over a lifetime so that they might enjoy dignity in their later years.”

Unfortunately, it turns out there is a great deal Medicare doesn’t cover. That’s why we have something called Medi-Gap Insurance. Just like regular medical insurance, plans, costs, and co-pays differ from company to company.

Medicaid is a state program with matching federal funds (now called Choices for Care, in Vermont). Medicaid is designed to go into effect when Medicare or private insurance benefits are exceeded. Medicaid has income and physical needs eligibility tests.

Finally, there is long term care insurance. This is private insurance which offers an alternative to Medicaid. It also covers non-medical care. This is an important distinction, as none of the others do. Non-medical care is extra support, such as having someone come in to help with washing, dressing, meals or other activities of daily living (ADL’s) that help a person remain at home.

So, how to figure out which program is right, when? The best first step is to call the Senior Help Line, 1-800-642-5119. This will connect you with your local Area Agency on Aging. They can help you navigate your way through the many rules and regulations as you make your choices for care.

Aging in Place, it doesn’t happen by accident.

April 2008

Getting and Giving Hugs

For many of us, retirement marks the beginning of the end of the affirmation and encouragement which had sustained us throughout our professional lives. These “hugs” came in the form of pats on the back, laughs at our jokes, bonuses and congratulations from the boss, and the simple courtesies of the workplace. They are part of what made our working lives meaningful. They are, perhaps, the hardest thing to replace during our non-working years.

We’ve all heard the stories about how baby monkeys need touching to thrive. There are also plenty of studies to substantiate the fact that our need for contact with others never diminishes. We are herd animals; even the lone wolf longs for the company of the pack. Left alone, most of us wither and wane.

Hugs can come in many forms. Pets can provide them, as can the companionship of flowers. Many people volunteer or work part time as a way of keeping in touch with others. (Schools, churches and libraries are always looking for help.) Continuing education programs offer more than an opportunity to learn; getting an A is a great hug no matter what the student’s age.

There are simple things we can all offer, too. Eye contact, a hand shake that lingers a bit, or a smiling “hello” can work wonders. A brief greeting and comment with the person in line at the check out can help make their day. Waving works, too.

Those random contacts we make with strangers everyday can easily turn into hugs for us and them. All it takes is an extra minute or two. By slowing down just a little, we can let someone else in, as we let something of ourselves out. It’s better than an on-line chat and you get to see the results in real time.

Aging in Place, it doesn’t happen by accident.

May 2008

Building Bridges

Before my father’s death, I journeyed back home to try and put things right with him. While we were each certain of the other’s love, there had been a long standing gap between us. In the last decade, we had only seen each other a few times and rarely spoke.

Arriving at the nursing home, I found him weak and heavily sedated. So, I set aside what I had hoped to accomplish and simply sat in silence with him for as much as I could during that last visit. My opportunity to reconnect with my dad had passed. It happened without my knowing and I only found out once it was too late.

For all of us, there are issues which seem important, insults seeking redress or disappointments requiring reconciliation. We hold and nurture our causes like the Hatfields and McCoys, often until it is too late to do anything about it.

That’s why it is so important to reach out to family and friends while we can. Not just because it is a better way to be, but because the passage of time makes us all more important to each other. We need to share in the good times and the difficulties. Each of us in turn will need to give or receive care.

I’m now approaching 60 and have already lost both parents and several dear friends. A gentleman told me I have entered the “parting time” when each year will bring more and more funerals. “How do I prepare for this?” I asked. “Reach out, reach in, forgive everyone everything, and buy a dark blue suit,” was his reply.

And so, I have begun to build bridges, reconnecting with my past and reaching out to my community to create new friendships. It is also called creating a support structure. Today, I can spare a little time to write my sister or to help my neighbor rake the yard. Tomorrow, I may need a ride to the airport or back from the hospital. The contact we exchange is as important as the support we give and receive.

Whatever happens as we age, it will be easier and richer with a few more people in our lives. Aging in Place, it doesn’t happen by accident.

June 2008

The Sandwich Generation

They are called the Sandwich Generation. Adults who, no matter what their expectations, have their lives disrupted by the need to care for both their parents and children at the same time. It can be brought on by something sudden like a stroke or begin with a little assistance that grows into a greater commitment as a parent becomes increasingly frail.

CBS News estimated there are over 16 million households trying to balance the demands of multi-generational caring. As Boomers age and their parents continue to push the life expectancy envelope, more and more families will come to know the stress of nurturing both young and old.

Surprisingly, there is usually not much discussion either within families or between people and their financial planners about this phenomenon. We each go along thinking our plans will protect us. Sadly, many people find out the old saying is still true, “Life is what happens while you are making other plans.”

There is much value and blessing in being a care provider, but it can also stretch and stress us. Fitting in the extra hours for a loved one can mean turning a well-ordered life upside down. In most cases, one person ends up trying to do everything.

So, what are we to do? Talk. Adults need to talk with their parents and siblings to make sure advance directives are in place and up to date. Do Mom and Dad have long term care insurance? How are their investments doing? Is their house suffering from deferred maintenance? Is it a practical place for them to Age in Place? What’s the long term family strategy for providing support?

Most important of all is to start a dialogue in which both generations can understand that neither can free the other from the obligation or the desire to care. We love each other and want to help. Our lives are intertwined and our need for each other transcends even our concepts of independence and privacy.

Adult children also need to talk with their financial planners about how to protect their retirement plans from being disrupted if they are suddenly called to duty as a member of the Sandwich Generation.

Aging in Place, it doesn’t happen by accident.

July 2008

Long Distance Caring

When my sister out in San Diego was struggling to raise her boys, work her job, and help care for our dad, I was always ready to offer her advice. It would not be overstating it to say that I proved the old saying, “The passion of the advice is in direct proportion to the advisor’s distance from the problem; the greater the distance the more the enthusiasm.”

It took me a couple of years to learn than my sister didn’t need advice. What she needed was support. She needed someone to sympathize with her and cheer her on for the truly incredible job she was doing. One of the most important things I ended up doing was encouraging her to take care of herself. So, I became the head of her fan club and from then on things improved.

Being the distant loved one is not as difficult as actually offering support to a family member day in and day out. But neither does it offer the blessings of providing care, like the deepening relationship that grew between my dad and sister. You want to be involved, to help. In fact you need to help, but what is help?

One thing you can do is get a local phone book. That way you can help search for resources. Or go surfing online while you are both on the phone. Together you can discover and evaluate what is available.

Be sure to contact the Area Agency on Aging. They are in all 50 states and have great resources. They can also help you negotiate departments and requirements to get appropriate services.

With multiple family members spread out over many states, the challenges can be even greater. If everyone is cooperating, great; divide up the chores. Maybe starting with the basics is a good idea. Things like wills and advance directives need to be discussed as much as whether mom or dad can keep driving.

Don’t forget, the person receiving care deserves the opportunity to participate in these discussions to whatever degree is possible. After all, no one should have to give up their dignity or their choices because of an illness or diminished abilities. A client of mine put it beautifully, “I can’t get around as good as I used to, but my brain still works fine.”

Aging in Place, it doesn’t happen by accident.

August 2008

Hard Times

At a recent meeting with a client and her daughter, we were making small talk about how high grocery prices are when the younger woman mentioned she had been going on line to learn how to make preserves.

“What’s wrong with mine?” the mother asked.

“Oh my word,” the daughter exclaimed, “I never thought of it. You could teach me to make preserves!”

With prices for everything from vegetables to gasoline going higher by the day, everyone is facing tough choices. For many Baby Boomers it is the first time in our lives we have had to make the sort of decisions of economy that our parents grew up with.

Back then it was called “hard times” and families handled things by cutting back and pulling together in a way that subsequent generations have not had to do. But with fuel oil predicted to be nearly five dollars a gallon this winter, it may be time to do as our grandparents did and turn to family for help and advice.

Older retirees are a wonderful resource when it comes to learning how to adapt in these difficult days. One gentleman put it very well to me, “I learned as a kid that you can’t have everything you want, so you better be darn sure you know the difference between what you really need and what you just wish you had.”

Strange to think that one must learn how to evaluate which items in the budget are luxuries and which are necessities. But then until recently, I didn’t even have a budget. It shouldn’t be a surprise that creating an effective one would not be a natural instinct.

Tight budgets were a way of life for my dad. He used to shake his head and laugh at my extravagance, “You might want to be careful with your money, it could turn out to be valuable someday.”

Saving money on the oil bill isn’t just a matter of insulating what you can, it inevitably involves turning down the thermostat. Grocery prices may spur us to rediscover old ways of making do. As we look for ways to change, there are plenty of people to ask. It might be parents or grandparents, it might be an older friend or neighbor, but it certainly needs to be a person who has survived it, so, don’t ask me until next spring.

Aging in Place, it doesn’t happen by accident.

September 2008

Older Vets, Newer Benefits

The men and women who served during the Korean Conflict and Viet Nam War did not come home to a hero’s welcome. For most, putting the experience behind them was their highest priority. Because of this, many have not kept up with the changes in VA Benefits. Those benefits, like the way we view veterans, have changed significantly in recent years.

To understand VA Benefits we need first to appreciate that there are two VA’s in Vermont. One covers medical benefits and it is located in White River Junction at the VA hospital. (The general phone number is 866- OUR VETS.) Other benefits go through the Vermont Veterans Affairs office in Montpelier (802-828-3379).

When I called Montpelier, I was amazed at the wealth of information and how much is going on. For example, the Agent Orange Registry serves to track medical issues of veterans. They have learned that prostate cancer and Type 2 diabetes occur significantly more often in veterans who served in Viet Nam. As a result these two diseases are now covered as service-related disabilities.

Qualified veterans can also get Aid and Attendant Assistance. This covers both veterans and surviving spouses. It provides support to help pay for nursing home and in home care for the blind and those needing help with activities of daily living.

The current VA Bill before congress could create the biggest change and improvement in VA Benefits since World War 2. To better understand what it might mean for you and encourage passage, contact Senator Leahy or Sanders, or Representative Welch.

So how do you find out more? Call the numbers above or contact your local VFW, American Legion, or Disabled American Veterans Assoc. If you haven’t already done so, sign up on the Agent Orange Registry (866-687-8387). It’s important for Gulf War vets to sign up for their registry, too.

Not surprisingly, you should be prepared to spend some time and do some leg work. There is a lot of information out there and negotiating your way through it can be both frustrating and rewarding. If you go on line, you can start with www.va.gov, www.whiteriver.gov or www.va.state.vt.us.

Remember, benefits are something you earned. You have a right to them. In spite of the bureaucratic paperwork, a grateful nation wants to thank you for the service you have rendered. Don’t get discouraged; get informed. Aging in Place, it doesn’t happen by accident.

October 2008

The One Number to Know

This year’s higher fuel prices are sending many retirees looking for assistance for the first time in their lives. Navigating the many federal, state, local and non-profit agencies can be like traveling through foreign countries: you need a map. Better yet, you need a guide.

That is where the Senior Help Line comes in. Dial 1-800-642-5119 to connect with your local Area Agency on Aging (AAA) office. These are the folks who can help you figure out whom to contact for what.

AAA’s are established throughout the United States. Their purpose is to facilitate access to the programs available to support aging as independently as possible. They give a local voice to national policies; their guidance can be invaluable and their services are free.

Your AAA can let you know who can help make your home more fuel efficient. There could even grant money or low interest loans available. They can also answer questions about the new Catamount Health Plan, Meals on Wheels or an adult day center in your area.

Depending on your situation, a case manager could be assigned to be your regular contact as you attempt to get the various forms of assistance you qualify for. You may discover a great deal more support out there than you expected. Some programs have eligibility requirements and some don’t.

Are you looking for volunteer opportunities? The AAA can guide you to where your skills and interests can do the most good.

Or maybe you are trying to help a friend or family member who lives at a distance. Again, their AAA is a great resource to be in touch with.

So, call the Senior Help Line and find out more about what is available in your area. After all, Aging in Place, it doesn’t happen by accident.

November 2008

Keep Driving – Safely

As the days grow colder and drivers across Vermont dig the snow tires from the back of garages, debates will rage over whether Mom or Dad should still be driving. The prospect of slippery roads, icy windshields and creeping past snow plows can be daunting for Mom and Dad, as well.

When you have 50 or more years driving experience, a good driving record, and real needs like getting to the store or a doctor’s appointment, driving isn’t just a symbol of freedom and independence. Add the fact that public transportation is almost non-existent in much of Vermont and you have a mix that is sure to create both frustration and aggravation between family members who truly care for each other’s best interests.

While it is true that our reflexes and vision change as we age, that doesn’t necessarily make older drivers into bad drivers. It does mean we need to be aware of changes in our abilities so we can adjust for them.

This year, AARP held nearly 100 Driver Safety classes across Vermont. The class is designed to update driving skills, help us accommodate for normal physical changes associated with aging, and inform us about rules that have changed over the last few decades. It can make us better drivers and even qualify us for a discount on auto insurance with some companies. The goal is to help us stay on the road, sharing it safely.

The classes also offer a great way to find compromise for those families who are arguing. Perhaps if Mom or Dad agrees to take the safety class, everyone can accept that driving differently doesn’t automatically mean driving poorly.

To learn when an AARP Driver Safety class will be coming to your area, log onto aarp.org and search for “driver’s safety course” or call 888-AARPNOW (that’s 888-227-7669).

So, put those snow tires on before the first storm, make sure you have plenty of de-icing fluid and a good windshield scraper, and drive safely. After all, Aging in Place doesn’t happen by accident.

December 2008

Holiday Time is an Aging in Place Opportunity

The holidays are an excellent time to build bridges of understanding and support between generations in a family. This is especially true for families who live further apart.

For the adult child, it is an opportunity to notice changes in their parents. Is Mom or Dad slowing down a little? Are they less involved in church or community? Are there signs of deferred maintenance on the house?

This isn’t about looking for problems. It is seeking opportunities to appreciate what is behind changes so we can provide support.

For retirees, now could be good time to share how difficult it has become to keep track of all the bills or that it’s getting harder to drive at night. If those big holiday feasts are becoming more exhausting, maybe the tradition can be passed on or shared. Cost, time and energy can be overwhelming when it comes to entertaining several generations of loving family. What comes as a surprise to many is that rotating the festivities not only divides the work but can multiply the fun as well.

With the present financial uncertainty, this may also be a good time to revisit holiday giving. In my family, we are talking about meaningful gifts rather than plentiful. That can mean making gifts or passing things along from one home to another rather than shopping and spending. Yankee swaps stretch out the giftgiving and the fun. Holidays can also be a wonderful time to pass down heirlooms or treasured tokens.

These are sacred days ahead for all of us. The joyous season brings our generations together like no other time of year. As we gather to share traditions of faith, memories, and the company of family and friends, we can also make new traditions and learn new ways to give and receive.

Aging in Place, it doesn’t happen by accident.