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Have an interest in the well-being of older adults, a passion for elder advocacy, or just considering a career with more job security? As more and more baby boomers reach retirement age, the United States is experiencing a shortage of people trained to meet the unique needs of older adults. There are a number of career paths an individual can take if they want to work with or for older Americans. There’s medicine, teaching, public policy, non-profit work, and research just to name a few.

I’m a member of the Gamma Upsilon chapter of Sigma Phi Omega national gerontology honor society at the UMass Boston.  Our officers are hosting a local event during “Careers in Aging Week” on April 8, 2013 that will feature a career panel and luncheon for interested students, adult learners, faculty, career counselors, and the general public.

According to Dr. Jeffrey Burr, chair of my gerontology department,“This Careers in Aging Week event will provide important information about the wide range of professions in the field of aging and aging research, raise awareness about older populations and their needs, and inform students and the public of the many academic programs available to get one started on a career path.”

As someone who has been in an aging field for years, I am hoping not only to learn about job opportunities but to network with local professionals at the event. “Gamma Upsilon’s chapter of Sigma Phi Omega national academic honor society at University of Massachusetts Boston is proud to bring Careers in Aging Week to the Boston community,” said Kristen Porter, a PhD student in gerontology and president of the chapter. “We will be joining our colleagues across the country who are hosting similar events. Our April 8 event includes a lunch reception with gerontology faculty and students along with a career panel comprised of four esteemed professionals working in distinct aspects of the aging field.”

Panelists include Jane Saczynski, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine at UMass Medical School; Suzanne Leveille, PhD, RN, Director of PhD Program in Nursing at UMass Boston; Andrea Cohen, CEO at HouseWorks; and Emily Shea, Commissioner of the Commission on Affairs of the Elderly. Porter notes, “Panelists will share their own education and career trajectories as well as offer their advice to students considering a career in the aging field.”

The event is free and will take place at the University of Massachusetts Boston in McCormack Hall’s Ryan Lounge beginning at 12:30 p.m. If you are in the Boston area this is a great opportunity to learn and network, hope I see you there!

The Boston College Center for Retirement Research always has wonderful posts on their blog. It’s great for someone like me, who’s working on a dissertation that focuses on retirement. I can get a quick synopsis of the current research coming out of the CRR. They always make their information useful for the general public too, and I want to share with you a recent post  that highlighted a new tool for people planning for retirement. How do you know if you’re doing enough? Ask the calculator!

You can play around with the calculator here. I really liked the tool, and found it easy to use and visually appealing. I liked how the graphics instantly updated based on my changes. The calculator also took into account important information like what age I plan on retiring and what I expect to get from Social Security or my employer pension. The calculation gave me a good estimate of my monthly income in retirement because all my resources were accounted for. It also told me I’m not doing enough if I want to maintain my standard of living in retirement!

The best part was Step 3: Make a Plan. Unlike many of the other retirement income estimators I’ve seen online (which are often on the website of an investment company) this calculator helped me reach my retirement goals and come out with a plan for free! Nothing to sign up for or invest in. The site offered simple steps to increase my retirement income like asking me to consider spending less each month or retiring at 65 instead of 62. And the tool showed me exactly what will happen to my income if I take one or both of these steps. I came up with a plan that suited me and the site offered to help me develop an action plan for moving forward.

I encourage anyone who’s planning for retirement to give it a shot: Target Your Retirement

The Summer 2012 issue of the American Society on Aging’s journal “Generations” got me excited. Why you ask? For the first time we have a document summarizing the current knowledge of elder financial capacity and competency in America. Experts from economic, clinical, legal, and public policy research write up informative articles about this growing problem. One of the most important articles, I think, was written by Kristen L. Triebel and Daniel C. Marson titled “The Warning Signs of Diminished Financial Capacity in Older Adults.”

Individuals with mild cognitive impairment or those with early stage Alzheimer’s are particularly at risk for declining financial capacity and competency. They are the focus of this article. These individuals are likely to develop issues with the following financial skills perhaps even before they are diagnosed.

The Warning Signs

  • Memory lapses – forgetting to pay bills, paying them late, or paying the same bill repeatedly
  • Disorganization – misplacing financial documents, missing deadlines like when taxes are due
  • Declines in checkbook management – changes in one’s ability to use a checkbook, for example incorrectly filling out checks, writing the wrong payee or payment amount, or calculating the wrong balance after a transaction
  • Arithmetic errors – difficulty with making change to pay at the store or figuring out the tip in a restaurant
  • Conceptual confusion – declines or confusion in general knowledge about concepts like your will, annuity, or mortgage
  • Impaired judgement – judgement about the use of money or how to invest declines

The authors point out that considering an individual’s baseline (or normal financial ability and functioning) is the first step. Then look for any of the previously mentioned warning signs. Often the first financial skills to decline are the ability to manage a checkbook and the ability to do mathematical computations. The authors suggest action once warning signs are detected, and encourage family members to discuss any concerns with the older adult. It is important to respect the elder’s autonomy so they suggest the following:

  • simplifying and setting financial routines
  • consolidating accounts so the financial caretaker can keep track of the flow of funds
  • putting the proper legal documents in place
  • taking advantage of new bank technology (direct deposit, automatic bill pay, over-draft protection, and online banking) to help monitor and maintain the accounts

Financial exploitation is an increasing concern in the United States. Often these victims had decreases in their financial capacity but perhaps did not notice or did not acknowledge the decline. As the elder law attorney William Brisk mentions in a later article, “Being old does not make one incompetent, but aging is often accompanied by declining memory and other cognitive deficits, which can lead to poor judgement and even irrational behavior. The classic view of competence is that you either have it or you don’t. Like a light switch, it’s either on or off.” In reality, it is not that black and white.

A brief history of Social Security benefit claiming goes like this: In the beginning, benefits were available only at age 65. In 1956, reduced benefits were made available to women as early as age 62. In 1961, this treatment extended to men. Over time the age people claimed benefits steadily decreased and the average age for retirement stuck at 62 years old. In 1983, when facing an imminent shortage of funds, the age for full benefits increased from 65 to 67. While this reform did not change the earliest age you could claim Social Security, it reduced benefits further for early claimers. Currently, claiming benefits at age 62 instead of age 67 results in 25 percent less in every monthly check. So, $938 per month rather than $1,250 per month. Get it? Good!

In the past decade, the age of claiming Social Security benefits steadily increased as people began to comprehend how much money they lose by retiring early. That is, until the recent economic recession. A brief from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College shows a large increase in early benefit claims from 2007 to 2009. More than 5 percent of the eligible population were enticed to claim Social Security at age 62, which was not part of their plan before the crisis. These individuals will now receive a reduced benefit for the rest of their lives.

Simulations by the authors suggest that compared to experiencing no recession, people claimed benefits about 10 months earlier than they planned, which reduced their monthly benefit by 8 percent. This many not seem like much now but every little bit helps when living on a fixed income. Ask an 82-year-old and she may tell you her Social Security check was plenty of income 20 years ago. Now she finds herself struggling to stay out of poverty.

A recent post by the CRR shows that non-working Baby Boomers age 55 to 61 (ages ineligible for Social Security benefits) are wealthier now than non-working 55 to 61 year olds of the past. The post explores how they’ve accumulated the wealth and why they chose to leave the labor force. An important point of the article is that, though they find themselves wealthier than non-workers of the past, they still only have a median wealth figure of $98,000. This “isn’t a lot of money for a boomer with a long spell of retirement ahead of them.  Boomers who leave the labor force often put themselves at risk of depleting their 401(k) assets too soon.”

Full post from the Center for Retirement Research.

Post Introduction: “Baby boomers who’ve left the labor force in their pre-retirement years are in better financial shape than they once were.

The wealth of non-working Americans between ages 55 and 61 increased from $83,000 in 1992 to $98,000 in 2008, according to new research from the Urban Institute in Washington.  (Comparisons are in constant dollars.)

Potential explanations for this trend range from greater U.S. inequality that launched more boomers into the top wealth tier to a rise in the numbers of married men who don’t work – but have wives who do.  Barbara Butrica, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, said her study did not look into the “why” for the emerging group of voluntary non-workers who are approaching traditional retirement ages, married and single men in particular.  One possibility, she said, is that “they are leaving the labor force because they can afford to.”

…Read the full story

The Older Women’s League has come out with their 2012 Mother’s Day report. Their reports are always thorough, up-to-date, and readable. This year the topic is on women in the U.S. workforce and highlights what women are faced with as they grow older. As OWL’s president mentions in her message to readers, this is a timely report since mid-life and older women are the fastest growing segment of our workforce and the economic downturn presents new challenges in their ability to find work, keep their jobs, and build their retirement wealth.

Women and the Workforce: Challenges and Opportunities Facing Women as They Age

MDR2012

From the OWL National Website: “This year’s report looks at how factors such as unemployment and underemployment, pay inequality, caregiving, age and gender discrimination, and education, training, and technology are impacting women age 40 and older. The report highlights existing programs that produce real results and offer innovative solutions and policy-driven recommendations to expand economic diversity and accelerate our nation’s productivity.”

Last week I was asked to present high school students with information on women in the workforce and saving for retirement. One of my major goals was to instill the value of starting early. But I had the sense, maybe because I’m not too far from high school age myself, that my slides about compound interest and Roth IRAs would be particularly boring.

Rather than watch their eyes glaze over I added a new slide: A personal story about my mother, her life course, marital history and saving behavior. I wasn’t saying anything novel but by explaining compound interest this way I kept everyone’s attention. So, I encourage you to share this with the young people in your life and reflect on what it really means to save early and save often.

(For simplicity, the interest rate at all time points is 5%. In actuality, she gained more during her earlier life and has lost a lot during the recent recession).

This figure tells us two stories. Let’s begin with the story in blue, which is what really happened. At age 21, my mom got married and started working a new job. She was so excited to finally have her own money and be able to buy all the clothes she wanted and decorate their new house. My dad, however, didn’t think this was a good plan and told her, “Save your money! We both should be saving now for our future.” Reluctantly she saved, putting $2,000 away each year for her retirement. By the time her first child was born (me!) she had saved up $20,000.

In her 30’s she had another baby and raised my sister and me. She was not working or saving at this time but her $20,000 continued to grow. By 42 her marriage was on the rocks and she became divorced. Now, all that planning for her future had to be done alone. She spent a couple years searching for a new job and struggling with the change. Even so, the savings from her 20’s continued to grow. By 45 she found a new job and started her career over. She was getting nervous about her retirement savings and started putting away $5,000 a year. The savings from her new job were added the nice nest egg she had accumulated while she wasn’t working. The final blue bar shows an optimistic future where she continues to save each year, the economy improves and hopefully she reaches over $300,000 by retirement.

What is the reality of saving? Well, you can’t always save when you want to or need to and it’s hard to predict the future. For example, my mom couldn’t predict that we’d be in an economic recession right at the time most people her age start saving for retirement. The green bars show us what this path would look like for her. Nothing in her life has changed except that she didn’t save in her 20’s. Instead she chose to ignore my dad’s suggestion and spend her money on clothes, new furniture and all the other things she wanted. The message is clear: Saving early, even if it’s just a little, makes a huge difference for your future.

I can tell you honestly that most of my mom’s friends are extremely worried about their futures. They are in their 50’s, starting to save now and having a difficult time. She knows, though she hates to admit it, my dad was right.

This post by Robert Powell from MarketWatch (The Wall Street Journal) discusses a bleak outlook for America’s state of retirement security. In my opinion, the most important thing mentioned in this article is how the lack of financial education among workers can directly affect their retirement wealth. Many people hold misguided expectations about their retirement portfolios and believe they have more in Social Security benefits, employer pension plans, or health and long-term care coverage than they really do (Helman, VanDerhei, & Copeland, 2007). What’s worse, this misinformation can actually drive planning behavior so much that ill-informed workers, rather than doing nothing, are losing significant portions of their pension wealth because they take inappropriate and detrimental action (Chan & Stevens, 2003). Not everyone has expendable income to play with, yet the financially-informed worker is 5 times more likely to respond to pension incentives accordingly and increase their pension wealth (Ekerdt & Hackney, 2002).

The article highlights many other topics that are important to educate yourself about. We need to fix Social Security, we need to contribute more to our own 401(k)s and retirement savings, we need to make sure more workers are covered by pension plans, and so forth. Yet, many of the suggestions for fixing these issues are based on what’s feasible for the typical, middle class worker.

Should you really force people to put part of their wages into an IRA when they need every penny of every paycheck to cover the costs of food, shelter, and clothing? If yes, can you tell them what percentage of their income they must contribute? Are you then required to financially educated them or give them free access to financial experts? Will they even live long enough to reap the benefits of their automatic IRA account?

Longevity may be increasing in this country but we should always be cautious of statistics. Longevity varies widely by gender, race, income level, health status, region of the country…I don’t know, pick something. In fact, life expectancy has actually declined for women between 1997 and 2007 which is extremely rare in developed countries. “The nation has experienced a widening gap between the most and least healthy places to live. In some regions of the country, men and women are dying younger on average than their counterparts in nations such as Syria, Panama and Vietnam.”

As with any policy change or “universal” action, all parties who will be affected by the changes must be considered. I encourage you to read Powell’s article and to approach his solutions cautiously. Though it cannot be the only answer, there is one that seems to me most helpful and realistic: Financial education for all.

 

Today, after listening to the President speak, I started thinking about the economy’s impact on older Americans. I found an interesting report from The National Academies Press titled:  Assessing the Impact of Severe Economic Recession on the Elderly. You can read the document here, which summarizes a workshop called by The National Institute on Aging. The report’s main goal is to reflect on what we already know and what we need to learn about the current recession’s effect on older adults. Unfortunately, what we already know is quite bleak.

How People are Coping: All age groups are being affected by the recession but older workers are often unable to completely recover from these kinds of financial shocks. The most common ways people are coping with income loss are to reduce spending, reduce saving, utilize unemployment benefits, withdraw money from savings, get financial assistance from friends or family, and borrow money (i.e. credit cards, loans). Some older workers are also choosing to delay retirement as an additional coping method.

Our Health and Well-Being: Our health is being negatively effected by the economic recession. GDP is strongly, inversely related to mortality over the long term, and older workers who lose their jobs are at greater risk for certain health conditions than those who remain employed. Still the Gallup Well-Being Index found that people’s well-being significantly declined in the fall of 2008 but went back up substantially by May 2009. I am nervous, now that we lost our AAA rating and the current stock market is in turmoil, if people’s well-being will again decline.

Unemployment or Retirement: Unfortunately, older adults who lose their job are less likely to get hired back into the labor force compared to younger workers. Those who do find work are often making significantly less than they made at their previous job. Researchers find that age discrimination in the workplace continues to exist, particularly for older women. It is therefore not surprising that many older adults who lost their jobs are deciding to retire. This early retirement, however, could hurt future finances. Increases in Social Security’s full retirement age, less time to invest in your retirement accounts, fewer vested years with your employer, or simply having less in wages over your lifetime can all have negative effects on your finances in old age.

What Can You Do: The report summarizes a depressing situation and then has limited suggestions (and most of them seem pretty intuitive to me). I don’t know if it will tell you anything new but here they are along with my own comments:

  • Buy low, sell high – Experts suggest raising your contribution rates (if you can) to your stocks, bonds and pension accounts while the market is doing poorly. If the markets bounce back before you retire you may gain substantially (the younger you are the more you are likely to gain). If you are retired and have spare cash, consider moving it into low-risk funds so that you too may gain from the markets being low (Please consult a financial adviser who will learn about your personal situation. Do not take this as professional advice).
  • Reduce your spending – A no-brainer but often hard to do. Consider what you really need now and what can wait. Did you know that “I don’t need it” is the most common reason eligible individuals refuse welfare? Figure out what you really need, what you can live without, and what is most important to you.
  • Stay in your home – Selling now is not a great idea, so consider modifications if your home is currently not a safe place to grow old.
  • Keep your job – If possible, consider waiting to retire. If you have been laid off, consider looking for new employment and working a few more years before you retire. Collecting your Social Security benefits early will mean a lower monthly paycheck for the rest of your life.
  • Utilize family – Your family may be able to provide some insurance against financial shocks. It’s important to have someone you can call on for help, even if you don’t use them.
The report highlights a ton of questions we need to research before we can understand what is going on. Unfortunately all that means is the recession’s impact on older workers will be understood after it’s all over, providing them little support in the meantime.

While on a recent phone conversation with my best friend we got to talking about her parents and their (in her opinion) impulsive purchase. They were in North Carolina on vacation and bought a plot of land. They plan to build a house on it over the next couple of years and by the time they retire it will be ready for them to move in. Being a gerontology student and always thinking about long-term care needs, I babbled on for a few minutes about universal design. If they intend to build this home and stay in it for as long as possible, I told my friend, then they should consider their future needs.

Recent statistics show that about 80% of baby boomers want to remain in their homes for as long as possible (and Obama’s new Affordable Care Act may help them do just that with the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) program and the expansion of Home and Community-Based Services. A story for another time). If you start planning for it now, you don’t have to have oodles of money to build a house from scratch like my friend’s parents. Let me share with you what I feel are the key components of universal design and home modifications:

  • Think About Daily Activities – when modifying your home to support you in old age focus on making it easy to perform basic activities like bathing, cooking, or getting into and out of your home. Examples:
  1. Install grab bars in the bathroom
  2. Replace doorknobs or faucet handles with lever handles
  3. Install handrails on both sides of any staircases inside or outside your home (or consider ramps)
  4. Create some easy access storage in the kitchen such as a pull-out pantry or adjustable shelves
  • Consider the Age of Your Home – Most older adults live in homes that are over 20 years old and these can have some issues as you age. Some updates to your home can help you age in place. Examples:
  1. Install proper insulation, storm windows, and air conditioning so you have good heating and ventilation
  2. Create 36-inch wide doorways throughout the house for easy access with a wheelchair or walker
  3. Move outlets 18-inches off the floor so you’ll be able to reach them without much bending
  4. Put your laundry on the main floor (definitely get it out of the basement!)
  • Make Safety a Priority – Think about your aging parents. What parts of their home make you nervous? The clutter, the dim lighting, the slippery bathroom? These may also become a safety concern for you one day. Examples:
  1. Get rid of throw rugs (they are very hazardous!)
  2. Place non-slip strips in the bath tub, the kitchen and on any outdoor or indoor stairways
  3. Install bright lighting inside and outside the home, and make sure switches are easy to use and access
  4. Rearrange your furniture so there is plenty of space to move around a room

There are many companies out there that will sell you some pretty sleek looking products. You definitely do not need to spend that kind of money, but I think some people fear their home will look like a hospital if they integrate basic universal design.  Just remember this is entirely up to you, your tastes and your budget. If you start planning for it now and modify your home over time the benefits could greatly outweigh the costs. Below are some resources if you are interested in learning more:

National Resource Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modification

  • Comprehensive list of online resources
  • Directory for finding services in your area

US Department of Health and Human Services

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