Sometimes I Feel Like a Piece of Bologna

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy New Year!

I want to wish all of my readers, but especially those of you who are Gen Sandwichers and caring in some capacity for aging parents, a blessed, prosperous, and healthy 2007. You are to be commended for honoring your parents at a time when culture seems to tell us, “Look out for yourself.” Keep up the good work and hear the words of Jesus saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

We’re enjoying a quiet evening at home. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it, but my son and his wife arrived about noon on Christmas day. We have them until January 3 and couldn’t be more thrilled. What a delight to have them long enough to be able to enjoy just hanging out and being family together. Unfortunately, one of our gifts from our Christmas dinner host was the flu. It’s been making the rounds in both families. I caught it first. Son and DIL have caught the “terrible cold” version, and now hubby has stomach flu version, which is what I had. Fortunately, the flu is the 24-hour version, with another 24 hours of feeling fragile. But because the kids have had colds the entire time and hubby and I have bracketed them, we’ve been in low gear all week. We haven’t accomplished half what we had hoped to. But we did our annual trek to Chevy’s and the Nutcracker, and hopefully will spend tomorrow with many friends hubby and I have known since our single days. (That’s a long time ago…). We had expected to spend the evening with the friends who shared the illness with us, but decided to give ourselves one more evening to recuperate. One of the guys hosting tomorrow is recovering from cancer, so we certainly don’t want to infect him.

It’s been so good having the kids home, and I must say that I admire my DIL. She has been a trooper. Yes, she enjoys coming here, but nine days is a long time with your in-laws. It’s not everyone who can manage that with panache. She does. She fits in well, knows when to get some space, and is learning her way around my kitchen. We are blessed.

So, may 2007 be a bright and wonderful year for you. See you next year!

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Elder-Care Costs Deplete Savings of a Generation

Jane Gross of the New York Times writes poignantly about the ways members of the boomer generation are depleting their own savings to care for their elderly parents. Increasingly, people almost old enough to retire are harnessed with the need to pay for their parents’ care or expenses. And those expenses are higher than ever before in history.

This problem will only increase as the boomers themselves become the aging parents. It behooves us to make plans now and talk to our kids while we’re all still healthy. Rehearse with them what we want done for us and what we don’t want and how to make those decisions when the time comes.

It’s important to decide to provide for ourselves as much as possible. As Boomers age, there will be increased pressure on the government to take care of us. Already people are complaining that Medicare doesn’t cover enough, that Medicare Part D doesn’t cover all prescription drugs, and that Medicaid is too hard to qualify for. While it’s convenient to think that the Nanny State can take care of all of us, the reality is, it can’t. There won’t be enough workers to support the care of the Boomer generation without bankrupting our children. The problem we are now seeing with our parents being unprepared for their end-of-life expenses are largely due to their thinking that things would always be as they have always been, that the little they squirreled away would be enough. But they didn’t count on living longer than any other generation in history and they didn’t count on exponential increases in medical and care costs. The only thing we can be sure of as our generation ages is that things will change more than we think they will and we need to be prepared for the unexpected. This is not an impossible task, but it will take some planning, some foresight, and a lot of facing reality.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Daily call helps keep seniors healthy

Here’s a new twist on keeping track of your parents. A high-tech Wayzata, MN company called Warm Health is using automated phone contact to help seniors stay healthy and independent in their own homes, while giving their adult baby-boomer children an online glimpse of how their elderly folks are faring.

According to an article in the Minneapolis-St. Paul,
it's not quite Nanny-cam for seniors. But as 22 million American families provide some level of care for elderly relatives, the computerized calls are an innovative soft monitor for concerned baby boomers who often live in other cities and find themselves overstretched, juggling jobs and caring for teens, but with aging parents who want to be independent.

The daily four-minute Warm Health phone calls begin with a spiritual or nostalgic message--the senior gets to choose--and conclude with health tips and health questions. The seniors' recorded responses to those questions appear on the Warm Health website, accessible for designated family members to view and hear. The calls are one small answer in addressing the isolation and loneliness that can erode seniors' health. They also address the problem of seniors forgetting to take medications, the major cause of an estimated 125,000 drug-related deaths a year among elderly Americans.

For this holiday season Warm Health is providing a free 30-day trial to provide a lift for your loved one. The monthly fee after that is $34.95/mo.

What do you think? I’m not sure my mom would delight in receiving a computerized call every day. A nuisance, she’d say. But for those who are more home bound, it might be an option.

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Saturday, December 23, 2006

Medicare Part D and Merry Christmas

Just a quick reminder. You (or your parents) must sign up for Medicare Part D or make any plan changes before December 31.

We just got back from visiting my parents for the family Christmas. It went very well, but every time I visit, I see little signs of decline in both Mom and Dad. Subtle, small, but visible.

I want to wish all of my wonderful readers a very Merry and Blessed Christmas. Enjoy your family and friends. They are gifts to you, and you are a gift to them.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

A Gen Sandwich Christmas

Elizabeth at GenBetween says, "It's hard being responsible for most everything, huh? No answers, just empathy."

Yep, it is. I guess the question is, how much of that is my fault (if I dropped the ball, would anyone pick it up?), how much is birth order (oldest, responsible one, you know...) and how much is simply that I live by a different set of values than the rest of my sibs.

We leave tomorrow for two days at Mom's. Gifts are all wrapped and most of the food purchased (except that Costco was out of pork tenderloins, so we'll have to stop on the way). I haven't started packing yet, but the laundry is all done and it's only two days, so that shouldn't take long. (Famous last words?)

Now, to get on with the Christmas letter, which clearly won't make it out before the holiday... again.... We send well over 200 letters, so it's an ordeal that I seem to keep putting off. But I'd rather be late than stop doing it or do less. This is the one chance each year to keep in touch with old friends (who, BTW, seem to be getting older. We got some photos this year from people we didn't even recognize! I'm so glad we haven't changed a bit....)

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Christmas Looming and Lamenting

I wonder how much blog posting drops in December? I sure haven’t had time to write anything profound. Or anything at all for that matter. Even now I’m stealing time from wrapping, decorating (no, I’m not done yet....) and baking. Not to mention laundry….

We leave Friday morning to spend two days with Mom and Dad, and I’m still not ready. We’ll cook another relatively simple meal on Saturday, although from what I hear, my sister is too busy and tired to help. And the brother who often pitches in doesn’t come for Christmas. So once again, the load will fall on me. Problem is, I’ve been too busy to even delegate much or think about a simpler alternative. What we did for Thanksgiving worked—sort of. And most important, since this is my parents’ Christmas, I want to make it special for them. We’ll have a wonderful day with our best friends on the 25th and over a week with our son and DIL. Christmas at Mom’s is a blip for us, but for her, it’s all there is. And who knows how many more they will have.

I must confess that I’m preoccupied preparing for the 25th when our son and DIL come home. It saddens me that I have such joy preparing for them and feel only responsibility preparing for the celebration at Mom’s. I really do want to make it wonderful for her. Once again her family celebration is not on Christmas, but on the weekend before. She’s done that for years to assure getting the greatest number of us there. But even now, one son and DIL, one or two grandchildren, and at least three great grands won’t be there. And her husband is still in board and care, longing to come home.

When I talked to her tonight, she vacillated between anticipatory planning and crying. I know she’s tired, yet I know she will pick up the load my sister is dropping even if I tell her not to. She said that she had her doctor run a blood panel to see why she’s been feeling so bad, but everything came back “just fine.” Now what? Looks as if I need to try to get over to her next appointment.

I’d love to hear how other Gen Sandwichers are balancing Christmas celebrations and what you’ve done to lighten the load and increase the joy.

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Signs your Aging Parent May Need Help

As you prepare to visit your aging parents this Christmas season, be alert to changes in their ability to care for themselves. If possible, plan to stay for more than a meal. We’ll stay two days with my mom, keeping our eyes open for household tasks that need attention and assessing her ability to manage.

A blogger identified as Lady offers five signs that your aging parents may need help, with links to several excellent Mayo Clinic articles. As you visit your parents during the holiday season, keep these in mind.

Then, if you haven’t done so already, you need to begin talking to your parents about their plans and their needs. If you see them regularly, this might not be the week to bring up sensitive topics. But if this is your only annual trek, you need to begin the discussion. Even if it’s only an introduction. I also find it’s important to visit at least once a month if at all possible. By being there regularly, I can see the changes before they get too serious.

Kara McGuire of the Minneapolis St. Paul offers several strategies for opening the conversation with your parents.

We were fortunate that my parents and I began talking early and have continued the conversation over the years. Now it’s as common as talking about other family things. And they’ve learned to trust my judgment—at least most of the time. That wasn’t the case with my husband’s parents. They were quite unwilling to discuss end-of-life issues, and although we did get them to create a living trust, there were a lot of decisions left to us when they passed away.

So take this opportunity, if you haven’t already, to pay attention to your parent’s age-related issues. You may be surprised.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

More Sandwich Generation Frustrations

I was out most of yesterday, so didn’t make any phone calls to Secure Horizons--knew I didn't have time to sit on hold--but I did receive a phone call from the salesman. He gave me another Customer Service phone number to call for information. Today I called that number and got through in a mere 20 minutes! However, the number I reached was the HMO section. They could only tell me what we already have. They knew nothing about the PPO.

The Customer Disservice rep transferred me to another number, another division where the rep knew even less. She tried to get me to call the HMO department, but of course, I had already been there.

After several minutes of my telling her what I wanted and her telling me she couldn’t help, I asked to be transferred to a supervisor or someone who could answer my questions.

She transferred me to the sales office, where finally a knowledgable young man named John told me that the plan that had been marketed as a PPO isn’t. It’s a fee-for-service plan. We explored the coverage of both plans—and he actually knew what each of them covered! He didn’t have a side-by-side comparison, but as I got answers, I was able to create one. And the whole call, including three transfers and 10 minutes worth of useful information, only took an hour.

I find it so frustrating that United Healthcare feels they can jerk these seniors and their Gen Sandwich advocates around with such abysmal customer service. I don’t mind helping out my parents, but I really get frustrated with companies that don’t respect my time or that of my parents. As I make calls or do other service for my parents, I always ask myself, “Would Mom be able to handle this?” Most of the time, the answer is no.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Sandwich Generation Frustration with Secure Horizons

Today was a day of Gen Sandwich Frustration. While trying to get details on the differences between the HMO and PPO. I called Secure Horizons, which is owned by United Healthcare, about 11:30 am. After navigating my way through the menu, a recorded voice assured me that my call was important to them. For the next 30 minutes, I listened to the same two songs played over and over and over and …. You get the picture. Thank God it was classical. I have sat on hold with other companies listening to rock or rap. Not pretty.

But back to my story. After 30 minutes on hold, I had to leave for an appointment. I sent a message through the website indicating how long I had been holding and asked for someone to please call me between 2:00 and 3:00 pm. I got back about 2:00 and waited. A little after 3:00, having received no call, I tried again. After 39 minutes, I had to hang up to take a call on the other line. Tried again, and waited another 32 minutes, sent another email, and gave up.

Turns out that Mom had had a similar experience. She thought she could get answers, and waited on hold as long as she could before needing to go see my step dad. This isn’t the first time we’ve waited more than 30 minutes for customer service. In fact, I think in my year and a half of dealing with Secure Horizons, 20 minutes is my shortest wait. What incredible disrespect for the people who have chosen to purchase your product!

This is an excellent reason to avoid government operated universal health care. If this is the service we get from a for-profit company serving Medicare clients, supposedly dedicated to customer service and with freedom of choice for subscribers, what would government health care be like?? If you’re not sure, try calling the IRS. Although come to think of it, I’ve had better service from the IRS than from Secure Horizons.

Guess I’ll have to try again tomorrow. With an enrollment deadline looming, we need answers.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Medicare Soup - A, B, C, D

I’ve spent the evening on the Internet and still have few answers. A salesman from Mom’s HMO visited her last week. Apparently they are now offering a PPO option. Mom mailed me the materials, which don’t tell me a lot. This plan seems to have no premium, but doesn’t list the Part B premiums and is unclear on the Part D premiums.

I called the salesman, who knew almost nothing. He said this is a Medicare Part C plan. I didn’t realize there was a Plan C. My research tonight showed me that Part C is the Medicare Advantage Plan, which is what their HMO plan is, which is different from a Medigap plan. I thought the HMO was a Medigap plan.

I asked for a side-by-side comparison between the HMO and PPO. That seems reasonable, since the same company is offering both plans to the same clients. It would make sense to offer a comparison so seniors can make an informed choice. Well, the salesman didn’t have or know of any such comparison, but assured me that the PPO plan is better. It has to be. “They can’t offer a plan unless it’s better. There are insurance laws, right?” Right…

This plan seems to have higher co-payments for many services, but also has an annual out-of-pocket maximum of $3,200. So depending on utilization, you might come out ahead. Or not. And there’s still no provision for coverage in the donut hole.

I finally found a side-by-side on the company’s website, about six layers deep. It gives me more information than I had before, but is still lacking. I continue to be amazed at how confusing all this Medicare stuff is. And I have a degree in hospital administration! There’s no way any of the seniors I know would be able to figure it out.

So tomorrow, in the midst of my workday, I need to find time to call the company and ask more questions. I hope I don’t have to sit on hold for 20 minutes, which is what usually happens. And so far, I’ve not been impressed with the knowledge (or lack thereof) of the employees I’ve spoken to. When I was trying to get information on Part D, it took three calls to find an employee who even understood my questions, which were clearly not part of their memorized scripts. So I hope I can find someone who can help me so I can get back to work.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Bologna with no Bread

Tonight we decorated our tree and house. While I’m sure we’ve done it a time or two without our son while he was away at college, this year seemed to take on a different feel. It’s just my husband and I.

We did all the traditional things—Christmas carols on the stereo, chili and garlic bread for dinner, hot buttered run while decorating—but it seemed empty. Our son loves Christmas and makes such a celebration of the decorating process. Plus, he’s very artistic and has an eye for what goes where, what needs tweaking. Hubby and I, on the other hand, are real klutzes when it comes to decorating, whether the house or the tree.

I think this year had a sense of finality about it. He’s married and probably decorating his own tree and apartment. He won’t be home again. Of course, we’re delighted to have raised a son who actually left home. Who is actually making a living and living a life apart from ours. That’s good. We’re delighted to have a son who knows what it means to leave and cleave rather than move himself and his wife in with Mom and Dad. Good feeling. We “did good.”

But in the process of raising an independent son, we raised one we enjoy being with. We not only love him; we like him and we respect him. When he comes home, we talk and talk and talk for hours on end. And we feel the same about his sweet wife. We don’t get much sleep when they’re here. Sometimes we sit at the breakfast table until mid-afternoon, just talking about life. And so, we miss them.

Our first Christmas as parents of a married son. His first Christmas as a married man. The end of an era. The beginning of another…

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Medicare Web Tool Estimates Prescription Drug Costs

The Medicare website has posted a new cost estimator tool to help seniors estimate monthly and annual expenditures for prescriptions drugs based on the drugs beneficiaries take and their pharmacy.

The estimator tool can help seniors choose insurance plans and figure out when they may fall into the "donut hole," the coverage gap in Medicare's prescription drug benefit. It also helps them to compare Part D plans and search for drug costs, providing a detailed explanation of its cost estimates. The site is updated every two weeks using new information provided by the plans.

This may be helpful as a starting point, but since insurance plans can change their prices during the year, actual costs might be lower or higher than the cost estimator's predictions. So how does this help?


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Baby Boomers Value Caring for Aging Parents more than Earlier Generation

According to a press release by the University of Southern California (USC), boomers place a higher value on caring for their aging parents than their parents’ generation did. These findings surprised the researchers, who expected to find concern waning as age decreased. They also found that women exhibited more concern for family than men did.

I don’t know about the research, but it seems that everywhere I turn, I find women my age heavily involved in parent care. One friend provides most of the care and connection for her mother-in-law, spending one day per week with her. Another friend just returned from a trip to southern California to help her mother prepare for surgery. A teacher friend in Texas is responsible for the care of her mother who lives four hours away. A friend in Wyoming has had her mother living in her home for several years. And a friend in Arizona just moved her ailing grandmother into her home.

The women I know are conflicted about these responsibilities. We love our parents and want to serve them, and yet we’re not very good at juggling. We wish there were better answers. The combination of the emotional, time, and financial toll puts a strain on our relationships, our families, and our jobs. And yet, we’d never think of abandoning our parents. Even the ones who weren’t there for us. Family truly is a value for our generation.

Caring for our parents gives us an opportunity to test and prove our values. We put not only our money, but our lives, where our values are. It’s easy to say we believe in caring for them; it’s entirely another thing to do it. Day after day, week after week, year after year. Perhaps there’s hope for our generation after all. And hopefully we’re communicating these values to our kids, who will take our places as the caregivers as we take our parents’ places as the care receivers.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Long Term Care Insurance

Author Jacqueline Marcell tells the story of caring for her parents without the benefit of long term care insurance, then gives questions to ask when considering insurance.

I insisted that my parents buy LTC insurance several years ago. It was ghastly expensive and we could only find one company to write my then 84-year-old step dad. They could only get two year coverage and then only limited coverage. Every year my mom threatened to not pay the premium and let it lapse. They would never need it and it was costing almost $8000 per year. I really didn’t know the right answer. It was expensive, but I also knew that they didn’t have the resources for long-term care.

I’m so glad they had it. Dad was in a nursing home for a year at over $6000 per month. Now he’s in a board and care home for half that. So in one year, we gained back more than we paid for the coverage. Even so, Mom has spent a lot of money over and above what the insurance covered. And that doesn’t count the prescription drug donut hole that I’ve previously written about. Getting old is expensive!

So my husband and I are still debating. Coverage would be less per year for us, but if we live as long as my parents, we’d pay a fortune before we ever use the coverage. Decisions, decisions…

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Friday, December 01, 2006

Take Care of Yourself During the Holidays

Rosemary Lichtman and Phyllis Goldberg at Nourishing Relationships remind us to take care of ourselves during this busy month. What good advice, although easier to say than to do.

But I must say I had a wonderful day. I had my hair done this morning (long overdue), and then spent the afternoon shopping. I usually hate shopping, and now health problems make it more difficult. But tomorrow is my hubby’s birthday and I haven’t even started the Christmas shopping. So, I went to a couple of stores where I knew I could find gifts for several people. Since my only vice is books, I of course headed for the bookstore where I selected gifts for my niece and nephew.

Then I did something that I seldom do, even at the bookstore. (I’m always in a hurry. Get in, get what I need, get out.) I ordered a mocha and sat in the easy chair perusing a few books I was interested in for myself and others. After some time—who knows how long—I realized I had relaxed. I was sitting, reading books, and resting. What a treat! I felt so decadent! It was a wonderful interlude and made my day. I didn’t get all of my shopping done, but I got enough done and nurtured myself at the same time.

So even in the midst of the busyness of the holidays, please take care of yourself. Take time to enjoy the aromas, the colors, the music and the people. Treat yourself to a mocha. Put your feet up. Enjoy. And for a few minutes, let all thoughts of children and aging parents fall by the wayside. For a few minutes, nurture you. You’ll be much more prepared to go back to your responsibilities when you do that.

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