Mini Me

I have always thought of myself as medium-tall(ish). At 5’6,” that’s almost 2 ½” taller than the average woman who was born in the U.S. Although I have a lot of female friends who are taller than I am, I have enough friends of shorter stature to make me feel relatively vertically endowed. I’m always pleased to help when someone asks me to pluck an item from a top store shelf for them.

My drivers license says that I am 5’6,” medical documents say I’m 5’6,” my passport and global entry records say I’m 5’6.” Anywhere I’ve been asked to indicate my height information, I’ve written 5’6.”

Apparently, I am no longer 5’6.”

At a recent doctor appointment, a nurse not only asked me to stand on a scale (they never take our word for it, do they?), but to take off my shoes and have my height measured with a stadiometer. No problem… until I asked her how tall I was.

Big surprise.

I am aware that people generally shrink as they get older. Research indicates that women lose an average of 2 inches between the ages of 30 and 70 (and just over 3 inches by age 80). Men don’t lose quite as much on average – 1 inch by 70, and 2 inches by age 80. There is a huge variability in the amount lost and at what age, but just about all of us will shrink.

I just wasn’t aware that it had happened to me.

Normal age-related shrinkage is often due to the dehydration and compression of the discs between the vertebrae in the spine. In addition, our aging spines can become more curved and we lose bone density. Even the flattening of our arches can cause us to be shorter.

Shrinkage can also indicate other health issues, including an increased risk of bone fractures. Several studies have found that people over 65 who lost at least 2 inches in the past 15 to 20 years were at significantly higher risk for hip fracture than those who shrank less. That’s why it’s important to get measured at least once a year (don’t just fill in a box with how tall you think you are).

Most of the causes of shrinkage – including genetics – are out of our control, but we can take steps to protect our bones and muscles now. Weight-bearing exercise, ensuring adequate levels of calcium, vitamin D, and other bone-healthy nutrients, not drinking alcohol to excess, and not smoking, can all help mitigate the downward progression.

So now I am trying to come to terms with not being 5’6” and I’m not very happy about it. I am no longer tall(ish)… I’m closer to average. And, if I don’t want to become an even mini-er me, I’d better do what I can to stop the shrinkage now.

Navigating the Medicare Maze

Those of you who live in a country that believes ensuring adequate healthcare for all of its citizens is the right thing to do, may find this post puzzling. Feel free to gloat.

Recently, my husband became eligible for Medicare. After 64 years of being either covered by his parents’ healthcare plan or the one provided by his employer, his upcoming 65th birthday presented him with a dizzying array of healthcare plans and options – often with similar descriptions and letter designations – that he needed to choose from. Adding to his stress was the knowledge that he had a limited time window, a wrong decision now could be costly in the future, and, since my healthcare coverage is tied to his through his work until I turn 65, his choice directly affected me.

Even though my husband had officially retired from his company over six years ago, he continued to receive our healthcare coverage through them. With his impending birthday, he had to decide whether to switch to the company’s over 65 retiree medical plan or opt-out and dive into the Medicare pool on his own. There were pluses and minuses with both options, but, once we realized that leaving his company’s plan would force me to find coverage on the costly open market, we decided to stay.

Despite remaining under his company’s program, he still had to decide which plan they offered was best for us. I won’t go into all the details but, again, each option carried with it a set of consequences, and it wasn’t always apparent what those might be. We found ourselves trying to predict the future, including aliments, health challenges, and even if and where we might move at some point. This is one of many instances when navigating the Medicare maze, a crystal ball would have come in handy.

And, we are among the lucky ones.

We have healthcare coverage that we can afford and that is fairly robust. We are currently in good health, and we have the mental acuity – with a lot of research and careful reading – to understand the options offered and the possible ramifications of each choice.

We also know that can change.

The company or the government can – and most likely will over time – tweak the plans, and probably not to our benefit. We will most likely face health challenges as we age and our capacity to read and understand complex subjects and make sound decisions will probably fade over time. All of these likely progressions will impact our experience accessing Medicare.

It has been a month since he officially became a card-carrying member of Medicare. We are confident hopeful that we have made the right decisions for our situation. The financial penalties for non- or delayed-decisions (and there are a few so be careful) have been avoided. And, we have set things up so that we can make desired adjustments once I reach 65.

If you, or a loved one, turns 65 soon, I encourage you to start doing your homework now. There are many decisions to make and missing certain deadlines can be costly. If you haven’t already, soon you will find yourself flooded with mailings from various insurance companies and organizations that offer guidance (some better than others). You might feel overwhelmed and/or confused enough to want to just ignore it all together. Don’t.

Attend a few seminars if you can. Talk to your friends, family members, and colleagues. Ask how they made their decision and if they’ve found any helpful resources. One company you might want to check out is Boomer Benefits. They have a great website that contains a lot of information, answers to common questions, videos, and webinars. Most areas also have local Medicare insurance advisers who might be able to help you sort through the various options (at no cost to you).

Good luck and stay as healthy as you can. The best healthcare plan is the one you don’t have to use.

A Moving Question

We have had a decent amount of rain in our corner of Southern California over the last several weeks. Our succulents are happy, and the weeds are ecstatic.

The other day, as my husband and I were enjoying spending the afternoon in guilt-free, rainy-day lazing about, we became aware of a drip, drip, drip sound coming from the downstairs guest bathroom. That couldn’t be good… and it wasn’t. Upon inspection, we discovered water dripping through the ceiling vent onto the bathroom floor. Not a lot of water but no amount of precipitation traveling from the outside to the inside can be considered acceptable. So, when we had a short break in the rain, we climbed on our roof and laid out a tarp, then we called a roofing company to schedule an inspection.

Of all the things that can go wrong with a house (structural, plumbing, electrical, etc.) this certainly wasn’t the worse, but it restarted the conversation we have now and then about where and how we want to live at this time of our lives. Has our house become too much of a burden when what we really want to do is spend our time enjoying our retirement while we are healthy and able?

We love our house and our neighborhood so if we made the choice to relocate, it would be a very difficult decision. We’d give up a lot but living in a home that is virtually maintenance-free (for us, anyway) is tempting. A condo or a townhome, for instance, could mean that our repair responsibilities would end at the interior walls. When we left for a trip, all we’d have to do is lock the door and go. Yes, we’d have to off-load a lot of our stuff, but we’ve been doing that over the last few years anyway. Yes, we’d probably have to give up some luxuries (like having two separate offices), but I’m sure we could work things out.

As with most major decisions there is give and take, and both positive and negative outcomes. When we’ve discussed this in the past, we decided that what we’d lose outweighed what we’d gain. Lately, though, we’ve begun to realize that our priorities are changing. Do we want to spend a large amount of time doing yardwork and house projects, or would we rather let go of house-related stress, have more time to explore our interests, and travel without concerns?

Obviously, there are financial impacts that weigh in a decision like this but, right now, we are thinking about emotional and lifestyle considerations – both short- and long-term. If we move, would we soon regret what we gave up? Or, if we stay, would we look back and realize that we spent too much time caring for our house and not enough time enjoying our retirement?

So, I’m curious. Have any of you thought about moving – or, maybe you have moved – for similar reasons? What were some of your considerations in making your decision? What did you decide? Are you happy with the decision you made? Do you have any regrets? And, those of you who decided to sell your house and buy a low-maintenance alternative, are you now spending your free time in ways that you thought you would?

I know we aren’t the first – and won’t be the last – to think about this. Maybe we can learn from each other.

GratiTuesday: Flu Vaccinations

The last time I had the flu was over 15 years ago. I experienced a combination of feeling like I was going to die… and thinking that dying might be a better alternative to how horrible I felt. After going through that pain and misery, I swore that I would never miss getting my flu shot again… and I haven’t.

I was shocked to read recently the over 80,000 Americans died of flu last winter… and that was a “normal” – although severe – flu season. A vast majority of those deaths – over 90 percent – were people over 65.

According to a 2015 NPR-Truven Health Analytics Health Poll, 62 percent of people either had been or intended to be vaccinated for the flu that year. Those who didn’t plan to be immunized cited a variety of reasons, including:

• 48 percent believed that a flu shot was unnecessary for them
• 16 percent were concerned about side effects or risks
• 14 percent worried that the vaccine could infect them with the flu
• 8 percent believed that the vaccination was ineffective

Each February, vaccine manufacturers make their best guess about what strains of flu will be most prevalent the following winter. Because of this, the vaccines that are shipped out in September aren’t perfect. They have ranged from a high of 60 percent effective (in 2010-11) to a low of 19 percent (2014-15). But even imperfect vaccines are better than none at all. The strains identified back in February may not be 100 percent accurate but getting vaccinated could still lessen the impact of the influenza that infects you or a loved one.

Last year, flu-related complications sent about 200,000 people to the hospital. I’m not sure how many of these people had been vaccinated but my guess is the percentage is low. Studies have shown that flu vaccinations reduce children’s risk of pediatric intensive care unit admission by 74 percent, and adults of all ages by 71 percent.

It didn’t hurt a bit!

If you or your loved one is among the almost 40 percent of those who are reluctant to get vaccinated, I hope you will reconsider. Even if the flu has never made you particularly ill, it is possible to pass it on to someone who could experience much more severe symptoms. I’ve had those symptoms. I would be most grateful never to have them again.

GratiTuesday: A Gathering of Friends

Last Saturday, I attended a mini-reunion for my high school class. Since it wasn’t one of the big ones (those that end with a “0”), the event was low-key and casual. I almost didn’t go because the high school friends I maintain regular contact with (real contact, not occasional Facebook posts) were either out of town or had other plans for the evening. Since I’m not one of those who can walk into a crowd and instantly feel at ease, I questioned whether I’d enjoy myself. Our graduating class was large – around 600 – so (I told myself) the chances were pretty good that I wouldn’t remember many of the people.

After spending some time trying to talk myself out of going, I decided – with my husband’s encouragement – that I’d at least make an appearance. If after a short amount of time I wasn’t enjoying myself, I could leave. That’s one of the nice things about being an adult that I sometimes forget… I’m the boss of me.

When I entered the venue, my first reaction was that there were a bunch of old people there. Lots of grey hair and a few extra pounds padding quite a few mid-sections. Yikes! where were my classmates? Had I walked into the wrong event? After a moment’s hesitation, I convinced myself to take one lap around the room. If I didn’t see anyone I knew, I would keep on walking out the door and back to my car.

Fortunately, before I made a complete loop, I saw a familiar face… then another … then another. Those old people I saw at first? The years started to melt away and I began to see my high school friends. Sometimes I needed to glance several times at their name tags to be sure, but they were there.

Unlike past reunions, where there were a lot of “what do you do?” questions, followed by “how many kids do you have?” most of the conversations the other night centered around hobbies, travel, and day-to-day interests. Many of us had retired or were close and, for the most part, kids had grown and flown. The people I talked to were in relatively good health, they were active and engaged, and they were focused on enjoying life.

Not a great picture but the only one I have of the evening.

I heard the word grateful spoken many times that evening. Grateful for friendships that have lasted over many years, grateful for our families, grateful for our health, grateful for the experiences we’ve enjoyed since high school, and grateful that we decided to attend this gathering of our friends.

As is often done at reunions, a list of names of classmates no longer with us was read. Each time, the list grows longer, and, in this case, two names had been added very recently. It was a sobering reminder of how precious life is and how important it is to hold our friends and our loved ones close. After the names were read, the mood shifted just a bit. I think many of us found ourselves listening a little closer to our friends’ stories, hugging them a little harder, and, most of all, hoping that we will see everyone again at our next reunion.

How we lost 200 pounds in two weeks… and a little bit of ourselves along the way

A few posts ago, I wrote that my husband and I were beginning a period of intense paper-purging. Our file cabinets had become over-stuffed and we had boxes of papers on the shelves of our offices and in the garage. Our goal was to get rid of what was useless and to better organize and store the records we needed to hold onto. Simplify, organize, purge.

Although not yet finished – will that ever happen? – we have made great strides. We’ve dumped at least 100 pounds of paper into our recycle bin and have taken another 100 pounds or so to a commercial shredding facility. Our house feels lighter and our drawers and shelves have room to breathe.

As freeing as it has been to offload so much unnecessary paper, both of us were unprepared for the loss we are feeling too. Along with the financial statements that can now be found online, saved recipes and travel articles the internet has made irrelevant, and other paper flotsam and jetsam that we’ve squirreled away over the years, a lot of what we tossed was part of our history. Employment records, correspondence, reports that we’ve written, notes for talks we’ve presented, and even some recognition and awards we’ve received over the years.

Over 40 years of work either recycled or shredded.

Gone.

It’s hard to describe the conflicted emotions both of us are experiencing. While we are happy to be retired – thrilled not to be a part of the work-a-day world any longer – it is difficult to completely divorce ourselves from those two people we once were. We were full-time employees longer than we were students or have been retired… combined. Our careers meant a great deal to us. They helped to define us. Our job descriptions were how we answered the inevitable question, “What do you do?”

Now that we have empty space on our shelves, room in our file cabinets, and a garage that doesn’t feel quite so stuffed, we want to keep it that way. Like many retirees, our focus has is switched from acquiring stuff to having experiences. I imagine that the tinge of loss we are feeling now won’t last and will completely dissipate as we move on to our next adventure. Right now, though, we are feeling a little sad as we say goodbye to our younger selves and move further away from what we did then towards what we do now.

GratiTuesday: The Young and the Restless

I imagine that just about every older generation looks at the younger ones nipping at their heels and wonders if they have the skills and fortitude to run the world one day. Are they too selfish? Unfocused? Lazy? Have they been sheltered too much or have their lives been made too easy? Are they overly obsessed with their status on social media? Will they be able to take the reins when the time comes for them to pick up where we left off?

I wish I could say that my generation has done a better job during our tenure. Sadly, the environment is in deep trouble, violence and conflict are seemingly everywhere and never-ending, and the chasm between the haves and have-nots is widening. We will be leaving them with a bit of a mess.

Yes, you are.

Two observations these last few weeks have given me a reason for hope: seeing the optimism of the young athletes who took part in the Olympics and following the focused passion of the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. I am grateful to see young people who are energized, who reject societal inequalities, and who see the urgent need to protect our environment. They are concerned and they are restless, and they understand that sitting down and shutting up is not an option.

If they are indicative of the generation coming up, I think we are in good hands.