My mother died broke. She lived the last two years of her life in a nursing home that caters to poor people. The staffers were good and earnest people who took very decent care of the residents, but it was still an inner-city nursing home of extremely modest means. Mom shared a room with another lady. It had two beds, two night tables, a couple of chairs, a toilet, a sink and a coat closet. All told the square footage for the entire living space barely equaled the master bedroom where I sleep with my wife.
The saddest thing about this nursing home was that its inhabitants were people who had simply run out of options. Mom's options ran out the day my brother Joe and I faced the sad reality that, no matter how much number-crunching and scheming and promising we did, there just was no way that we could cover the month-to-month cost of a nicer place. I can't speak for my brother, but I felt guilty about this when we admitted mom to the nursing home, when we moved her body out of it after she died and even today, after she's been resting under the ground next to our father for more than a decade.
Mom never lived above her means or sought anybody's financial help, even when she needed it. She became eligible for public assistance, or "relief" as the old-timers called it, the day that she was widowed with three young boys in 1970, and she remained eligible until she died more than 30 years later. But the woman never sought or accepted a dime; in fact, she wouldn't even consider it. About all she lived on was a $600-a-month Social Security check.
When it came time to investigate places where mom could get the care that she needed, my job was to sort through the financial options, which meant delving into her affairs, if you can call them that. There was a checking account with around $400 in it. She owed MasterCard $4,500 and Macy's $2,100 and change; both credit card accounts were current as my mother always paid the minimum amount every month—and on time.
Based on these findings, and what I'd been told by the helpful people at Medicaid, mom clearly was eligible for financial assistance to help pay for her now-needed nursing care; after all, her net worth was negative $6,200.
And so, without asking her permission, I applied for help on her behalf and very quickly got it. Mom could move into the nursing home that Joe and I had settled upon, a church-run place we thought might make her feel comfortable, and Medicaid and her Social Security checks would cover a good portion of the cost. Mom would have hated the idea of getting a "free ride" but, like I said, better options had not presented themselves. She also wouldn't want to welch on her debts and so I paid off the credit cards even though I knew that I wasn't responsible and didn't have to.
I promised myself—and, more importantly, my wife Joan—that we would never find ourselves in the position my mother was in at the end, and judging from our current finances I don't believe that we will. Unlike my parents, Joan and I aren't poor. We're not rich either, but things would have to go very seriously wrong in order for our finances to devolve into my parents' territory.
Or so I've been telling myself.
There's a rub, you see. A scary one. Lately, it's been keeping me up at night—and, believe me, nothing ever keeps me up at night. Once my neighbor's entire house burned down in the middle of the night and I slept straight through until morning. My wife tells me that four fire trucks were out on the street all night long; one was still there when I got up to get ready for work.
What keeps me up nights now is the idea that, like my mother, Joan and I might require some type of long-term health care down the road. So far we've managed to avoid the whole idea of this but something happened this summer that changed things. A lot.
Joan turned 60. Next spring, I'll be doing the same.
Everything I've heard and read about this stuff says that we need to buy long-term care insurance right now. Who knows? Maybe we should have bought it already. The longer we wait, the harder it is to get the insurance and the more money it costs; at least that's what I've read. And how's this for scary? If Joan and I make it to the age of 65, there's a better than 50 percent chance that we will, in fact, require some type of long-term care.
I've forced myself to look into how much this type of care costs and it isn't pretty. Not even a little bit. In our case running through our entire life's savings to pay for certain kinds of care won't take very long at all, in fact. And guess what. When you're out of money you're out of options. Just like my mother.
You'd think all this would light a fire under my sorry ass. And yet you don't see me running to the nearest State Farm office with fingers, arms and legs crossed, and big fat checkbook in hand. Hell, I don't even know where the nearest State Farm office is. I'm not sure I want to know.
My wife's no better. Seems every time I broach the subject, she runs off to the kitchen to check on something that's burning in the oven. When this went on just the other night there wasn't even anything in the oven to go and check on.
Of course, we're not the only fifty- and sixtysomethings who are dragging their Sketchers on this thing. I read that something like 100,000 of these long-term care policies were purchased last year, which doesn't sound like very many considering the population.
But then I'm no expert. I'm just a guy who wants to protect himself and his wife from ending up like his mother.
Guess it's time to man up and finally do something about it.