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.

The tyranny of stuff

When my husband and I retired, getting rid of excess stuff was one of our primary goals. Although our home wouldn’t qualify for hoarder status, it carried the baggage of stuff collecting that had taken place over the years. Because we both had acquired stuff before we met, a good amount of that stuff was transferred from our individual homes into our shared home. And, of course, stuff continued to enter our home after we got married. Then, after my parents died, some of their stuff also found its way into our growing collection.

Now, several years into retirement, we still have too much stuff. Although we’ve done a pretty good job of curtailing the in-flow of more stuff, the out-flow hasn’t gone as easily as we had hoped it would. We don’t have too much of a problem identifying stuff to be tossed or stuff to be donated; it’s the stuff we no longer want but has value – real or sentimental – that is more difficult to manage.

We had high hopes that eBay would be the perfect way to get rid of lots of stuff and bring in some money in the process. Although we’ve used it to sell several dozen items and we intend to sell more, we have found that the process takes a lot of time. When we started out, we put just about anything up for auction, regardless of its hoped for selling price. We once sold some used cycling cleat covers (yes, someone wanted them) for $8.00, plus shipping. But, after we figured the time it took to research an asking price (yes, there were similar cleat covers being sold), write copy,  take pictures, post the ad, then package and mail them when they sold, we were lucky if we made $3 an hour. Other items, of course, have sold for much more, which made the process worth it. As a result, we have become more discriminating about what is worth selling and what we should donate or post for free on Craig’s List.

Stuff headed for the Discovery Shop.
Stuff headed for the Discovery Shop.

Our push to get rid of stuff has ramped up lately. We are enjoying living a less-cluttered life and a better functioning home. We like having a few cabinets that are actually empty. The closet in our guest room has space for guests’ clothes. I no longer seldom am embarrassed when friends or neighbors stop by unexpectedly. As long as they stay out of our offices and the catch-all room upstairs, the illusion of having a well-curated home is maintained.

But, just living with less clutter day-to-day isn’t the only reason we want to get rid of more stuff. We are also looking at a few long-term advantages. Having a home that we could temporarily swap for, say, one in the south of France would extend our travel budget. Renting our house while we take off for extended adventures could provide income and security. Either possibility would be easier to accomplish if our home had less stuff and more space.

When I was younger, I loved acquiring stuff. Now, I view most stuff as unnecessary, restricting and complicating. Slowly, I’m winnowing down my wardrobe to have fewer, but more versatile clothes. Our shelves are being freed of clutter, leaving only a few, carefully selected items. The tabletop piles of paper are being swept away and replaced with… nothing.

Very gradually, we are freeing our home of the tyranny of stuff and welcoming the liberation of having space.

Party nuts for hire

I am rerunning a few of my earlier posts over the next few weeks. This one, about missing out on fun corporate events now that we are retired, was from July, 2014.

spicy-party-nuts-pic2

My husband and I worked for the same company before we retired. It is not only one of the largest employers in our city; it is also a major sponsor of a number of charitable and civic organizations.

Over the years, we have been invited to attend numerous events as company representatives. Neither one of us was high up on the corporate food chain, but when the company “bought” a table at an event and needed to fill seats, they could always rely on us to say “YES!” Not only were we enthusiastic, we didn’t need much advanced notice; he owns a tux, I have a few fancy dresses of various lengths, and we didn’t need to hire a baby sitter.

As surrogate “important people,” we’ve been fortunate to attend some really fun parties; most involved good food and wine and, if we were lucky, a band and a big dance floor. I thought it surprising that the company had a difficult time finding attendees but I realized not everyone had our flexibility or the same idea of fun. We, on the other hand, were usually ready, willing and able to fill in when asked.

One of my favorite events is a major fundraiser in support of a local hospice program.  The annual gala is held at a local resort hotel and consists of a silent auction/reception, sit-down dinner, and dancing. The following day, attendees are treated to a regatta on the bay aboard a number of personal yachts donated for the day. We’ve been invited to attend six or seven times and have always enjoyed ourselves immensely.

The fundraiser is in mid-August… for the first time in many years we have not been invited.

boats

I’m not terribly surprised that these invitations will disappear now that we no longer work for the company, but I admit a sense of loss and regret. Yes, of course we could actually pay for our tickets, but most of these benefits have quite a high per-person price-tag, a cost that isn’t in our retirement budget.

Because we’d still like to enjoy the good life without actually paying for it, I am exploring the idea of starting second careers as professional event attendees. We’ve got a lot to offer and we won’t ask for anything in compensation beyond the cost of admission and, of course, the food, wine and festivities that go with it.

  • Last minute need to fill seats? Our closets contain a selection of clothes for a variety of occasions. With little notice we can dress up for a formal occasion, dress down for a barbeque, or anything in between.
  • Worried that some guests might be shy and feel left out? We can make pleasant conversation with anyone. We know a little about a wide range of subjects, and we will strictly avoid the topics of religion and politics.
  • Want to assure the band isn’t playing to an empty dance floor? We can “break the ice” by being the first ones out. We are decent dancers but not so good that we’d discourage other couples from joining us on the floor.
  • Need someone to start the bidding at an auction or to deliver the first “impromptu” tribute for a guest of honor? Just tell us what needs to be done and we can start the ball rolling.
  • Party over, need people to leave? We can subtly yet firmly encourage guests to pack up and go home. We can do it seamlessly and without anyone catching on.

My husband and I can dress well enough to blend in, but not so well that we stand out. We can guarantee that our pictures won’t appear in the society columns.

No worries about us eating or drinking too much. We won’t crowd the buffet table or embarrass our hosts employers by heaping mounds of food on our plates. We also won’t run up the bar bill excessively and make fools of ourselves by over-imbibing.

We are, after all, professionals.

Although my husband and I donate regularly to a number of favorite non-profits and charities, usually the most we get in return is a sheet of pre-printed address labels or maybe a tote bag. Being professional attendees will give us the opportunity to enjoy the same events as do those who give big and who regularly eat and drink better than we do.

I think it could work. I’m going to contact our former company’s corporate giving department to let them know we are available for hire. Maybe there’s still time to get tickets to the August fundraiser.

Looking forward through the rear-view mirror

Rear View_edited-1

I began this blog almost a year-and-a-half ago, just about 6 months before my retirement date. I’ve always enjoyed writing and I knew I wouldn’t have many opportunities outside of work unless I created them for myself. I subscribed to several blogs so starting my own blog seemed like a great way to do this. Deciding on my blog’s focus was easy; I was headed into a big unknown. I wasn’t sure what my personal retirement would look like – I had some ideas, but no real plan of action – so I wanted to explore the social and psychological aspects of retirement as well as learn from others who had gone before.

Originally, I envisioned writing posts several times a week. I had lots of ideas for topics and I figured spending an hour or two each week writing, formatting, and posting would be easy peasy. Soon, after realizing I was being much too optimistic about the time commitment, I dialed my expectations back to once a week. Now, a couple of posts a month has become the norm.

I still enjoy writing and I still have ideas for topics, but, because the perfect words don’t just flow out of my brain onto the screen, each post takes much longer than it probably appears it should have. I am the queen of edits and re-writes.

WordPress does a lot to encourage regular posts by offering a multitude of tutorials, challenges, and prompts. In addition, established bloggers invite others to join in on photo and writing challenges of their own. Last fall, I took part in WordPress’s Photography 101 challenge. It turned out to be a great way to share my photos of the Hawaiian vacation that coincided with the challenge and I managed to gain more followers because of my participation. Although I think these prompts and challenges can be quite helpful and fun to take part in, I find that, at least for my blog, they can dilute the main message and take the focus off what I want my blog to be about – life in retirement.

I will be celebrating my first retireversary next month and I am pleased to report that it’s going quite well. My husband and I have completed a few house projects, we’ve done some traveling and plan do a lot more, and we are discovering the joys and challenges of spending so much time together and being the masters of our own schedules.

I look forward to continuing this blog and I hope that I can be much more regular with my posts. I really appreciate everyone who stops by to read what I have to say, and I am especially grateful to those who take the time to add comments.

Although my blog is ultimately about retirement and “learning to navigate through my post-work world,” I imagine that it will morph a bit as time goes on, just as my life will change. There is so much to do, creative outlets to explore, and social interactions to enjoy. I want my blog to reflect all of this and more.

Is this when the wheels start to come off?

I have a friend who is battling colon cancer. She has undergone several series of chemotherapy over the past year and has yet to receive an “all clear” diagnosis from her doctors. Each time she thinks she is done, they’ve found new reasons for concern. After completing her last round of chemotherapy, she is now in a wait-and-see holding pattern and we are all cautiously optimistic.

Another friend is currently undergoing chemotherapy for Lymphoma.  She is one month into her treatments and after another 4 – 5 months her doctors will do another evaluation. She is getting a lot of support from her husband and friends, and we are cautiously optimistic about her outcome.

A neighbor who is also a good friend had a mastectomy a few years ago when a small tumor was discovered in her left breast. Recently, during a routine follow-up with her oncologist, it was discovered that her HCG levels were unusually high. High HCG levels are normal in pregnant women; high levels in a non-pregnant woman can be an indicator of ovarian cancer. She will get her test results later this week and her friends and family are cautiously optimistic that she will get a clean bill of health.

Then, just the weekend, I called a friend that I’ve known since grade school regarding an upcoming get-together. She told me that her attendance was up in the air at this time because her husband was recently diagnosed with severe Myelodysplastic Syndromes (MDS), a bone marrow disorder. In general, the prognosis for patients with advanced MDS isn’t encouraging, but she is doing her best to maintain a cautiously optimistic perspective for her husband and her family.

Hope

These four medical challenges are not the only ones faced by friends and acquaintances; I know a few who have battled cancer and won (at least for now) and several others who are living with MS and other long-term health issues.  But, these are the most recent and I can’t shake the feeling that there seems to be an uptick in the number of serious diagnoses received by friends, friends of friends, and their family members – all close to my age.

In general, when we reach retirement age, we are focused on our finances and our emotional well-being. Many also realize that it is important to exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet. When we think about the future, our concern is often how to ensure adequate care in our advanced age. I don’t think most of us put a lot of thought into facing an early death – of either ourselves or our loved ones.

A recent article in the New York Times titled Why Everyone Seems to Have Cancer discusses how cancer is slowly overtaking heart disease as the number 1 cause of death. Due to an increased focus on the benefits of exercise and a healthy diet, and the availability of medications to control blood pressure and cholesterol, heart disease is less likely to affect someone between 55 and 85. Because of the way cancers develop (over time, due to errors in cell evolution), just the fact that we have lived a long time makes us susceptible to these cell mutations.

Although there have been a lot of strides made in the treatment of some cancers, preventing it in the first place seems to hold the most promise. Governments do this by improving sanitation, regulating and banning certain toxins, and promoting research and the development of vaccines. On the individual level, we can make sure we pay attention to what we eat and get plenty of exercise to keep our weight at a healthy level, stop smoking – and if you don’t smoke, stay away from second-hand smoke, and avoid excessive sun exposure. Of course none of this is a guarantee: not one of the four friends mentioned at the beginning are overweight or have poor eating habits, they don’t smoke, and none of their cancers resulted from too much sun exposure.

I’m not sure what the takeaway from all of this is. I don’t want to live my life in fear of what could be waiting around the corner. I am fair-skinned but I love the being outdoors, so I slather on SPF 50 and go out and enjoy myself. Although I’d love to be able to encase my husband in bubble wrap when he goes on one of his routine 50-mile bike rides, I know I can’t. We both try our best to avoid unhealthy food but, sometimes, something bad is just the thing that makes us feel so good.

So, we do our best. We try to get as much out of this life that we can, love the people who we hold close as hard as we can, take as good care as we can of our frustratingly aging bodies and minds, and always strive to treat others with patience, kindness, and respect.

We remain cautiously optimistic about the future.

A Backward Glance at 2014, Part 3

Rather than making New Year’s resolutions that I’d probably break before the end of January, I decided to look back on 2014, the first year of my retirement, to see how my vision corresponded with my reality. In Part 1 and Part 2, I explored six specific areas of focus. Here in Part 3, I look at three more.

Learn new things – C

When I envisioned my retirement years before I actually made the step, I knew they would include ongoing education. There are so many subjects I want to learn about and, fortunately in my city, there are many avenues I can take to pursue this knowledge.

Osher is an amazing resource for lifelong education
Osher is an amazing resource for lifelong education

I’ve already taken classes on Photoshop and social media (both free through the Continuing Education system) and there are so many other subjects I am interested in. We are fortunate to have several colleges in the area that offer courses through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute that I plan to take advantage of. If you haven’t heard about Osher, I encourage you to Google them and see if they offer classes where you live.

I’m giving myself a C because I sort of took the spring and summer off right after I left work. I expect to refocus in the new year and feed my brain on a regular basis.

Be creative – B-

I’ve always been a fairly creative person; in fact I was a graphic design major in college. For those of you who haven’t reached 50 yet, it’s probably difficult to picture a time when design was done without a computer, but that was my world. Soon after I graduated, I decided not to make a career out of art and get into something more stable and lucrative.

I’ve dabble in artistic pursuits on and off over the years, but I looked forward to the free time I’d have in retirement to reawaken my creative side. I’ve made some progress, mostly in photography, but I want to do much more.

Care for and nurture my marriage – B+

This is the biggie. I wasn’t sure how being together almost 24-hours-a-day would affect my relationship with my husband. As solid as our marriage is, I realized that we needed to be mindful of this huge change in our lives. Would each of us get enough “me time”? Would we still find joy in being together? Would we drive each other crazy?

Looking back on the past year, I think we’ve done a great job adjusting to our new reality. It takes a lot of work, flexibility, and good communication, but isn’t that true of any relationship? I consider my husband my best friend and I know we are each other’s biggest fan. We can always improve (hence the B+, not an A), but there is no one else I’d rather find joy with or drive crazy.

 

So, tomorrow night is New Year’s Eve and we plan to spend a wonderful evening with good friends. We may even stay up until midnight (or, not). 2014 turned out to be a very good year and I look forward to filling 2015 with great adventures, personal growth, fulfilling connections with others, healthy living, and much laughter and joy. I wish the same for you.

A Backward Glance at 2014, Part 1

Although I don’t have a tradition of making New Year’s resolutions, I think it can be helpful to take stock of the year gone by and look for ways to do more of what worked and improve on what didn’t.

2014 was a year of big changes for me because on May 16, I made the leap into retirement. Some of the changes I experienced were predictable, but some took me by surprise. I’m happy to report that most were positive, but some… not so much.

Here’s how I think I did in a few categories (more in my next post):

Embracing Retirement – A+

It's hard to predict what is around the retirement corner
It’s hard to predict what is around the retirement corner

No one can predict how well they will take to a life change as major as retirement. I remember approaching the date with a mix of excitement and trepidation. I was grateful that I had the opportunity at a fairly young age, and I looked forward to joining my husband who retired two years previously.  On the other hand, I had a good job, an almost non-existent commute, and work friends that I enjoyed and knew I would miss. My fear was that I would wake up one morning and realize that I had made a terrible – and irreversible – choice.

I know now that I had nothing to fear. I wake up every day thankful that I don’t have to go to work. I stay in touch with several of my work friends and none of our conversations that are about work make me want to dive in again.

Diet and Exercise – C

I really had every intention of putting together an exercise program and sticking to it. Nothing crazy or too time-consuming; I wanted consistent and semi-challenging. Even just walking my three-mile, hilly course around our neighborhood would have been a great start. I envisioned taking up yoga.

That didn’t happen.

The worst part is that I have no excuse. Weather – too hot or cold – is seldom a barrier in Southern California and I actually enjoy exercising once I get started. It’s the getting started that has been the problem. I’m fortunate to be in pretty good shape despite my lethargy but I know I can’t rely on my good genes forever.

Fortunately, I have been successful in keeping my weight in my target range. I was concerned that being at home with the refrigerator just a few steps away would be my undoing. Although the temptations are plenty and my husband and I go out to lunch more often than we probably should, we manage to eat fairly healthily. In addition, I continue to follow the Fast Diet, a way of eating based on intermittent fasting. After learning about Dr. Mosley’s research on a PBS program almost two years ago I lost the weight I wanted to, and have kept it off without feeling deprived. It’s not for everyone, but it works for me.

Travel – A

Birds of a feather in Abilene
Birds of a feather in Abilene

A couple of months before I retired I went on a two-week cross-country road trip with a friend. She had made this trip many times alone, traveling between her home in Pennsylvania and Southern California, but this time I decided to tag along. It was great fun and I saw many parts of the country I hadn’t seen before.

In June, my husband and I traveled to Northern California for a three-week adventure that included car club activities and visits with both sides of our family. It was the first time we’ve vacationed that a work schedule didn’t force us to come home earlier than we wanted.

In the fall, we took off for a three-week trip to the big island, Hawaii. We were fortunate to have a very generous friend who opened her home to us for the entire time. Staying in someone’s home and having the luxury of time made the trip very special. Not only was our host an excellent tour guide, we didn’t feel that we had to choose between snorkeling, relaxing, and sight-seeing – we could do it all.

 

In my next post, I’ll look at several other retirement goals I have and assess my efforts and outcomes for those.