Old Age and Longevity as a Source of Family Conflict

Hmmm. . . .  what kind of a title is that?!  Well, it hearkens back to a bumper sticker from The Conflict Center (a local nonprofit  I used to volunteer with) that I have always liked: “Conflict is Inevitable, Violence is Not.” Conflict is natural, inevitable and often quite productive – when it is managed effectively.  Due to advances in health care and an overall increase in longevity, we are living longer than before and in unprecedented numbers.  We have never had this many old people on the planet before . . .  and here come the baby boomers in their “silver tsunami.”  We are all charting a course together on how to structure community that includes older people and values them not just for their “doing” but also for their “being.”  Beyond some basic and fundamental baselines, each of us is free – for better or for worse – to make our own choices about how we structure that community.

In my work I sometimes see people dying with large amounts of funds saved, but more often there is “enough” and in other circumstances people have already run out of money.  These things are rather difficult to predict, as a major factor is health care cost –many of the costs not covered in whole or in part by Medicare, and then there is also the choice about where and how to live (or with whom).  Many of us are facing financial challenges or difficulties as we look at aging in general.  I liked  “No Country for Old People”  – a post that I found thanks to my wills, trusts & estates prof blog subscription – read it here .

On page two of the post, you can watch Sam Waterston’s Saturday Night Live skit selling insurance to senior citizens to protect against robot attacks.  There are many forces coming to bear on individuals and families as we age in longer lifespans and in greater number.  So far, I haven’t had clients coming to me to deal with the aftereffects of robot attacks . . .  but there are the troubling and more subterranean fears about running out of money and losing autonomy.  There are more middle-income Americans aged 55 and older who are carrying more credit card debt (relative to income) on average than younger people.  You can read the recent report by EBRI, the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute here .

The tricky part about saving for retirement is knowing how much savings will be enough.  Many of us rely on financial advisors to help with managing investments and retirement savings, but the bottom line is that there isn’t really a “rule of thumb” for retirement savings.  While we are generally able to calculate our social security retirements benefits based on credits and retirement age, none of us knows how long we will live and whether our retirement savings will be enough.  For many of us, financial uncertainty is a source of stress during people’s working lives, so why wouldn’t it carry into retirement? Indeed, this can be an ongoing source of worry, with many older people not wanting to be a financial burden on their children.  Sometimes these can become a source of conflict as elderly parents struggle to manage their life activities in the face of declining health and capacities, which may include difficulties managing financial affairs.  One of the early warning sign of dementia is inattention to or mismanagement of finances.  Sometimes this can be evidenced by letting mail pile up, becoming forgetful about check writing, bill paying and handling cash.   For adult children and loved ones, the financial difficulties can be a source of conflict because children don’t often know when and how to step in to assist.  Sometimes this can make for a difficult situation, especially if a person with declining abilities becomes prey to psychological or financial abuse.  The signs of these forms of abuse (as contrasted with physical abuse)  along with neglect, are often missed.  Read the January newsletter from the Colorado Coalition for Elder Rights & Abuse Prevention here – it discusses elder abuse and medical care as a public health issue.

This is new terrain for nearly all of us.  Our grandparents and great grandparents didn’t tend to live that long, so we don’t tend to have a “model” of what a retirement span of 20-30 years looks like.  We mustn’t forget that we are in this together and there are valuable resources to help us.   The National Council on Aging has an informative fact sheet about economic security for elders available here  and their website also has helpful information about healthy aging.

How we deal with conflict – consciously or unconsciously – and whether we handle it in productive or counter-productive ways – is an important facet of aging.  Whether the “aging” we think of is our own or we are coping with losses sustained by age and frailty of a loved one, aging, disease, disability and death are all natural sources of conflict.  They are part of life after all.  How we choose to manage them is up to us.

©Barbara Cashman     www.DenverElderLaw.org

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