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Planning, Planning … Poof!

Lee Woodruff

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of guest blogs by Lee Woodruff.

As I said goodbye to my father in his assisted-living facility the other day, I left shaking my head in wonderment. How had we gotten to this place? My two sisters and I had been trading shifts, running back and forth between my parents for weeks now, toggling between the hard choices about my Dad’s sliding dementia and my mother’s tenuous health, which we hoped was temporary.

My parents had been planners. They had tried to think everything out, have the long-term care in place, set themselves up in a living facility that offered assistance as Dad’s disease inevitably progressed. They had done everything right and still we were scrambling as a family to get ahead of their needs, work out the finances and plan for the future. My sisters and I were researching the best network of healthcare aids and trying to determine how much his long- term care plan would cover. We had always assumed my mother would be able to be his caregiver for many years to come, but as so often happens in life when you least expect it, the rules had changed.

Two years ago, turning 50 was not the personal milestone I thought it would be. In the midst of my birthday I was unpacking from a move, shepherding a junior in high school through final exams and trying to attend end-of-school parties and events for my twin elementary school daughters. There was the background thrum of parents beginning to need us, the familiar siren song of the Sandwich Generation, lodged between the dual needs of children and parents – the ultimate in caregiving.

The enormity of the number 50 did not sink in at first. Over the next year I would find ways to mark the passage; a girl’s weekend, a dinner party, signing up for my AARP card, something I playfully flaunted to my younger friends with the caveat that I was still 35 inside. But as I delved a little into the world post- 50, I came to understand more about what it meant to be truly prepared, and how I could best wrap my arms around my own future and that of my husbands.

I had certainly learned from my parents that it was good to be prepared. My in-laws had a more “roll the dice and we’ll figure it out when we get to that stage” approach that was just the way they wanted it.

Where my parents had planned to move into a facility with progressive care, my husband’s parents had chosen to stay in their home as long as they could. I understood there was no cookie cutter scenario, no right and wrong for individuals.

But you have to at least initiate the discussion. Life had enough vagaries and surprises. My own experience with my husband’s critical injuries from a roadside bomb in Iraq, at the height of his journalism career, had taught me that none of us can ever predict what may be coming. A little planning can go a long way when life throws out surprises. Now, trying to support my parents from hundreds of miles away, I vastly appreciated their desire and steps to ease the journey for our daughters.

None of these topics are sexy. Planning and preparing is not the fun stuff of dinner party conversation. It’s like spending money on a new roof or a heating system. It’s not the shiny new kitchen cabinets or the piece of art work people can see and compliment you on. But those structural improvements are critical. They are the ever-present inner workings that provide for us in ways we don’t think about during day-to-day life, until the roof leaks or the heat goes out in the winter.

Talking about death, infirmity and the advance of old age is frightening to people. I understand why. No one wants to think about their vitality draining, of the possible ways in which our life force begins to ebb. And we live in a culture where people perceive “old” as useless. New and young and a culture of youth is the thing that is “in.”

But getting old – if we are lucky enough to get there healthy – is something that will happen to each of us. And there is an awful lot of misinformation out there about how and when to get prepared and what you need to know. There is no universal safety net that catches us all when we fall. The government doesn’t have some grand plan to care for us when we reach 65. All of those 401(k)s and the concept of your company offering you a guaranteed retirement plan, that way of life that is sustaining my parents is gone for those who came after.

One of my friends found herself an unexpected widow at 53. Another’s husband walked out after 30 years of marriage and still another watched their savings evaporate in a bad investment in the economic crisis.  These are common stories. Each one of us, I am sure, can tick off a litany of friends for whom life has not worked out in ways they had hoped. These cautionary tales are meant to invoke action. But still, many of us are rooted to the ground. We choose not to make the effort, we prolong or procrastinate, and we will wait for another day.

It’s basic human nature to believe the bad thing won’t happen to us, since it seems overwhelming to aggregate the information and to plan ahead.

These are important questions.

I’m going to a lot of 50 year old birthday celebrations lately. I’ll be headed to one this weekend. Along with the group gift jewelry or the donation to the person’s favorite charity or the bottle of wine, I’m passing on my message of preparedness. I’m telling my friends the best gift I can give them is one I have lived myself.

For more information on how you can be better prepared for your future, check out AARP’s Decide. Create. Share. (www.aarp.org/decide). This program has simple steps that take the fear out of the process and walk you through what you need to know.

Visit Lee on her website www.leewoodruff.com and follow her on Twitter @LeeMWoodruff