Getting Your Affairs In Order

Getting Your Affairs In Order

In a recent post, I reported on Dr. James Firman’s keynote address at the Positive Aging Conference.  One of his Seven Keys to a Brighter Future included taking responsibility for managing ourselves as we age – our health, our lives and our affairs.  This included having our paperwork in order and telling people what we want when we can no longer manage on our own.  This week the National Institute on Aging, a division of the NIH, issued a very good article on Getting Your Affairs in Order. A link to that article is included at the end of this blog.  While many people have the basics – a will, power of attorney and health care proxy, they don’t go far enough.  I am amazed at the number of people who don’t even have the basics, or who have not updated them for a long time.  Family circumstances change and your preferences may change as well, so you need to keep these documents current.

Key points that the NIH article makes:

  • Put your important papers and copies of legal documents in one place. You can set up a file, put everything in a desk or dresser drawer, or list the information and location of papers in a notebook. If your papers are in a bank safe deposit box, keep copies in a file at home. Check each year to see if there’s anything new to add.
  • Tell a trusted family member or friend where you put all your important papers. You don’t need to tell this friend or family member about your personal affairs, but someone should know where you keep your papers in case of an emergency. If you don’t have a relative or friend you trust, ask a lawyer to help.
  • Give permission in advance for your doctor or lawyer to talk with your caregiver as needed. There may be questions about your care, a bill, or a health insurance claim. Without your consent, your caregiver may not be able to get needed information. You can give your okay in advance to Medicare, a credit card company, your bank, or your doctor. You may need to sign and return a form.

I would add to the first point that if your papers are in a bank safe box, your executor will have to provide a death certificate, and possibly other identification in order to access the box.  Key papers need to be readily accessible, because getting proper documentation may take time.  My lawyer recommended that the original of my will be kept in her office so there is no question about its location and authenticity.

Also, there is a difference between the health care power of attorney which names the person to make health care decisions for you when you are no longer able to make them, and a living will says what you want and don’t want in the way of care. You need both documents. The names of these documents may differ in your state.

Another point:  Some financial institutions will not recognize your power of attorney, or will only recognize recently executed documents.  They have their own PofA form that needs to be completed and signed.  Check with your bank or brokerage house to see what their policy is.  If your PofA is not recognized, he or she will not be able to withdraw funds from your account to pay for your care.

It is not easy to confront these issues related to disability and death, but it is essential if you want your wishes to be known and followed.  You will also make it a lot easier for your power of attorney or executor to manage your affairs.  I urge you to read the NIH article at the link listed below.  There is a lot of information there and links to additional resources. You can also sign up to get regular emails from them.


Stuff . . continued


Some time ago, I wrote about Stuff-all those belongings that pile up and fill our homes.  Now, as many of us are thinking about relocating and downsizing, all that accumulation of stuff can be a daunting obstacle.   Here in Princeton, our most popular speaker on the Next Step speaker series was Professional Organizer Ellen Tozzi, talking about Downsizing Your Possessions with Ease. One very cold night, over 70 people came to hear her, in the face of an impending blizzard!

That earlier article quoted Diana Athill who downsized from a flat to a one room unit in a retirement home at the age of 92. She used the word ‘distill’ for the process – keeping only the things she truly loved and eliminating all the rest.

Well, my turn came.  I moved from a two bedroom townhouse with basement and garage to a small one bedroom apartment.  However, as I said in the first Stuff article, I have been working on downsizing for a number of years, being motivated by watching other friends’ struggles and hearing Ellen Tozzi’s talk numerous times.  I can offer some advice from personal experience:

First, start long before you anticipate a move. When you go into a drawer or a shelf, look at what is there – all of it.  See if there is anything there you have no further use for, and get rid of it right then and there.  It only takes a few minutes, and little-by-little, the job will get done. For a serious downsizing project, Ellen advocates setting aside an hour or two at a specific time each week, rather than attempting to clean out the whole house at once.  Most of my cupboards and closets had already been ‘distilled’ before I started packing process.  That made the job much easier, and far less stressful than it might have been.

Second, it can take multiple ‘distillations’ before you get to the essentials.  What looked important in the first go-through may be less so when you have an actual picture of your future space.  I found myself thinking “Why did I save this?” quite often.

Third, much of the material we have trouble parting with has to do with emotional connections with the past – papers, pictures, souvenirs of important occasions, connections with friends and family who may no longer be around.  I had the most trouble with tossing teaching and consulting materials – There was very good stuff there! But their real meaning was in my professional identity as a college professor and hospitality consultant. I found that it was important to think about the future, rather than ruminating on the past. In my future place, I will not have room for all these files. But more important, I will never teach those courses again. I will be moving on to new and exciting opportunities, and I will use my new space for new activities. My self-image does not depend on those file drawers in the garage.

Fourth, there are services and professionals who can help you get through the process. You don’t have to do it all yourself. The Princeton Senior Resource’s Community Resources guide has a page on Downsizing and Moving that lists companies to help you downsize and move, and also places to donate unwanted items. While many of the organizations listed are local to Central New Jersey, there are national websites there where you can find a credentialed real estate and move specialists in your area. You can also get some ideas on where to look in your community for organizations that will accept donated goods.

So, here I am, some months post-move, and by the door is a pile of stuff ready to go a local church’s rummage sale.   And no, I did not over estimate how much stuff to move; I just got my get-rid muscles up to strength. I actually have extra room in the closets and some drawers I am not using, but I have no reason to hang on to this stuff.

Once you get in the habit, getting rid of stuff you no longer have a use for come naturally.  And, there is a feeling of freedom, not having all this unnecessary stuff cluttering up the place.  My life has become much simpler, and one reason is that there isn’t all that stuff holding me back.   The condo is small, but it holds everything I need.  I just need to keep my get-rid muscles strong, because I know there will be new stuff coming in here from time to time, and I will need to keep things under control.



Where shall I live when I retire?


Ten Best Places to Retire
Affordable Places to Retire
Best Places to Retire Overseas

These articles and even whole books seem to be appearing with increasing frequency. They rate various locations based on a range of factors, including cost of living, taxes, home values, climate, crime rate and amenities available in the area. Want to be free of snow shoveling? Try the Sun Belt. Want to live cheaply, try Costa Rica. Want intellectual stimulation? Pick a college town.
To my mind, they all miss the point. The best place to retire is where your friends, family and social support network reside. I am not talking about Facebook! Research has shown over and over that people with strong social networks are happier and healthier as they age. One study found that having friends was even more important than having grandchildren. This makes some sense. Grandchildren are great when they are little, but they grow up and go about living their own lives, and may come back to visit the grandparents infrequently.
Many retirees who previously moved to the Sun Belt or to Florida are now moving back be nearer to their families and friends, and creating the ‘boomerang’ effect. Should you move? That is a very personal decision. But I suggest that you consider long and hard before moving away from a life time network of friends. They may be your greatest asset.


Men and Loneliness

In several previous posts, I talked about loneliness and its devastating impact on the physical and mental health of older adults.  And men seem to have a lot more difficulty than women on this score.  Perhaps that has to do with the loss of work contacts that comes with retirement. Those contacts  support our identity and our sense of meaning and purpose.  Many men have concentrated on their work, and have not had time to build and maintain friendships outside of the work place.  But once you leave the job, those friendships will fade, unless you have something in common with those people outside of the job.

In the movie Five Friends, the narrator quotes the American writer and philosopher, Elbert Hubbard, who said, “My father always used to say that when you die, if you’ve got five real friends, you’ve had a great life.”  Why is it so difficult for men to maintain five real friendships?

There is growing research about masculinity, including men’s friendships.   Dr. Daniel Duane, writing in the Men’s Journal, says that men have different types of friendships:  Convenience friendships involve an exchange of helpful information.  Mentor friends are just that – tutors. The third type is the activity friendship – fellows who get together to do something together -fish, ski or go to a ball game, for example.  With men, these types of friendships fade when there is no longer a need for them.  Earlier research called this The Male Deficit Model, and attributed it to norms about masculinity.  A different type, which women do much better than men, is the intimate friendship –where parties feel safe in confiding feelings, giving and receiving social support.  For some men, the only person they can confide in is their spouse, who is also the primary organizer of the couple’s social life.

How does a retired man find new friends?  Here are some suggestions

  • What activities do you enjoy? Look in your area for groups that are engaged in those activities. Their meetings will be listed in your local paper.
  • Check out your local senior center or place of worship. They frequently have men’s groups.
  • Volunteering is a great way to engage in activities you like to do and meet new friends.
  • is a website listing groups all over the country. Type in your location and you will get a list of groups meeting near you.  You can also search for specific types of groups.
  • If you look around the local coffee shops or mall food courts, you may see a table full of older men having breakfast, lunch or just coffee, and involved in conversation about just about any topic. These are ROMEOs– Retired Old Men Eating Out; they form spontaneously or may be organized by a local organization.  Ask if you can join them.  IF you can’t find ROMEOs group in your area, start one.  AARP has an article on them at

So guys, get off the couch, turn off the TV and get out there with others.  It’s good for your health, not to mention your joy in life.

Generativity: Doing Well While Doing Good

In his Stages of Psychosocial Theory, Eric Erikson proposed that each stage of human development has its ‘psychosocial crisis’, and that the seventh stage, middle adulthood (40-65 years), is characterized by the struggle between generativity and stagnation.  Generativity is defined as caring for and promoting the wellbeing of youth and future generations, being positive and productive, and willing to explore and to take risks.  If we fail to develop our generativity, we stagnate in self-absorption, failing to find meaning in our lives, and falling into fatalism, withdrawal, dissatisfaction with one’s self, and one’s life.

The Stanford Center on Longevity published a report recently on how two demographic groups -older adults and vulnerable young people can fulfill each other’s needs.  The older adults have time, the commitment and the skills to help a generation of vulnerable young people – those at risk due to poverty, low educational levels and even abusive or negligent upbringing.  That report, Hidden in Plain Sight: How Intergenerational Relationships Can Transform Our Future can be found at

Phyllis Segal, Vice President of had this to say about the report:

We are at an all-hands-on-deck moment for young people. The unacceptable reality is that over 55 percent of adolescents and 40 percent of younger children don’t have the support of caring adults in their homes, schools and communities. Adults 50+ represent a large, growing and renewable reservoir of talent and experience, poised and eager to invest in future generations.   How can organizations, communities and society create a plan for making intergenerational connections, building on-ramps and developing ways to harness the natural connections between older and younger people?

She then went on to describe a new initiative by to will bring the generations together and improve the lives of children and youth by mobilizing adults over 50 to stand up and show up for kids.  This program, called Encores4Youth will launch in November. If you would like to become involved, or find out more, go to  to register., is organization dedicated to tapping the skills and experience of those in midlife and beyond to improve communities and the world. One early program, began by Marc Freedman CEO of what is now, is Experience Corps, now part of AARP Foundation.  Experience Corps engages adults 50 and older as literacy tutors for struggling students in public schools. Currently, Experience Corps has 2,000 volunteer members working in schools in 20 cities around the country, primarily as in-class reading tutors for elementary school students in kindergarten through third grade.

You don’t have to wait for the new Encores4Youth roll-out, though, to get involved in your community and fulfill your generativity needs and avoid stagnation. Besides the Experience Corps programs around the country, there are many other opportunities.  Check with your local Senior Center or volunteer clearing house.  Many of them are run by local United Way offices.  Some websites listing volunteer opportunities are:  an AARP service  United We Serve

Report from the Positive Aging Conference

I have just returned from the eighth Positive Aging Conference in Washington DC, and  I came home revitalized.  I met many interesting and dedicated people working in the field of positive aging, and a number of the presenters were seniors themselves, in their 70’s and even 80’s.  One had completed his PhD in his mid-70’s.

First: What is Positive Aging?  There is no single definition for it, and different people and organizations even use different terms for the same phenomenon.  Various definitions of Positive Aging include

  • Enjoyment of living
  • Maintaining good health in later life with a healthy living style
  • Having positive feelings toward aging
  • Flourishing
  • Affirmative lifestyle and mindset
  • A sense of control in one’s life
  • Emotional wellness
  • Adaptability to new opportunities and challenges

One of the keynote speakers at the conference was James Firman, President and CEO of the National Council on Aging (NCOA).  Dr. Firman spoke on Navigating Longer Lives: Seven Keys to a Brighter Future. He started with a few statistics, including the fact that increasing life spans of boomers and increasing numbers of them equates to over 1 billion years of good health over the age of 65.  This is 12 times more than for their grandparents’ generation.

Dr. Firman’s Seven Keys include

  1. Change our expectations of ourselves. Having low expectations of older adults equals ageism, even if it is the older adults themselves who have low expectations. As he said “this is self-inflicted.”
  2. Discuss and define responsibilities. First of all, we need to manage ourselves – be involved with our own care of chronic conditions, and our general life planning.  Tell people what we want, have our legal documents in order. Then, be contributing members of society as a generation – get involved in the environmental movement, social justice.
  3. Create new norms for the third age. Dr. Firman asked: What is the meaning and purpose of this stage of life? He then discussed several specific norms: how do we spend our time, how do we include older people in society (participation), and what is a desired mix of learning, contribution and leisure.  We can spend a little less time watching TV and a little more time learning and growing, and contributing to our communities.
  4. Innovate to motivate: how do we motivate people to do these things? His answer is to satisfy their wants in the process – have fun, be healthy, financially secure, provide meaning and purpose, and inclusion.
  5. Create new pathways. There is very little guidance available for older adults, and no rituals that give meaning to this stage of life. Dr. Firman cited NCOA’s Aging Mastery program as a resource available to older adults. You can look it up at
  6. Innovate to optimize key assets. Those assets include time, skills of older adults, knowledge/wisdom, relationships/connections, homes and cars, health benefits, purchasing. Many of the examples he used were technology based: ride-shares, home-shares, learning exchanges, Seniors Helping Seniors, and NCOA’s Benefits Checkup program.
  7. Collaborate to create this new phase of life. The social contract still assumes a five year life, but now people are living 20 years or more after retirement. Our society needs to create a shared vision and a shared language of what we want.

The next Positive Aging Conference will be held in 2018 in Denver.  I plan to be there. Maybe I will be a presenter, too.








Avoiding isolation and loneliness

In the previous post, I discussed the importance of social interaction and friendships in maintaining health and well-being in later life.

What can we do to prevent isolation in our older years?  Here are some suggestions

  • As boomers, we can look at our housing options for aging, and choose to live in a place that has easy access to social activities. A gerontologist has described much of the housing in the US as “Peter Pan houses” – built for people who will never grow old, and in places  (suburbia) where one needs a car to go anyplace.  This alone leads to isolation or dependency on others for transportation when one can no longer drive, and can limit the number of friends who will be able to visit you as they age. Some research shows that residents of retirement communities or senior living facilities experience significantly less loneliness than other who stayed in their own homes. Another option is shared housing, Golden Girls style.
  • Replace friends you have lost; seek younger friends. Engage in social activities, volunteer to be with other people.  Men especially are vulnerable to loss of work friendships when they retire. (More about this in another post).
  • Make a plan for your retirement life. Start by asking yourself what will give you meaning and purpose.  Then pursue activities that will fulfill that plan, starting even before you retire.  In those activities, you will meet others who share your purpose, and with whom you can build lasting relationships.

How can we help others who are isolated and lonely?

  • We can help others – our family members or neighbors – by checking in with them. Just a phone call every day to see if our neighbor or friend is OK is reassuring.  Or, go further by making regular visits.
  • The flip side of this is to encourage the home-bound senior to initiate check-in calls to others. This not only provides social contact, it can give meaning and purpose to the home-bound person. The local senior center, office on aging or house of worship can give you names of people who would be happy to receive calls.
  • Health care providers and social workers need to be not only checking on their clients’ social networks, but have a network to connect them to others- to activities and services in the community. I was discussing a news story with one of our Senior Center social workers about an elderly person who had died and not found for some time.  Her response – “that is a social worker’s worst nightmare.”
  • Some articles have discussed using technology – email, social media or Skype as a means of combating isolation and loneliness in home-bound seniors. This can work if the senior has the technical skills to use the technology, and can afford it.  However, he or she will probably need assistance in setting up the system, and training in using it, not to mention encouragement along the way.  Getting used to something new can be quite difficult in older years.

Loneliness is bad for your health

A recently published research paper confirms what we already know from experience:  Loneliness and social isolation are hazardous to your heart health. Researchers in Britain conduced a meta analysis[1] (a research of the research) of the data in 23 research papers and found that poor social relationships increased the risk of developing coronary heart disease  by 29% and that there was a 32% increase in risk of stroke.  These risks are higher than for obesity or inactivity .  They defined social isolation as having few social contacts, and loneliness as feeling unhappy about the social relationships one does have (or lack of them).  Other research has shown that loneliness can contribute to earlier mortality from all causes.

The researchers identified three ways in which a lack of social relationships affect health over time: behaviors such as physical inactivity, smoking, and alcoholism; psychological factors such as reduced coping skills and lower self-esteem, and physiological aspects such as reduced immune function and high blood pressure.

Earlier studies have proposed that social relationships may provide resources to buffer the effect of stressors and help the individual adapt to changing conditions.  They may also directly or indirectly model and support healthy behaviors, and give the individual roles and experiences that give purpose and meaning to his or her life.

There is a difference between being alone and being lonely.  It is a matter of quality, not quantity.  A person can be lonely in a crowd or with a spouse or caregiver, or conversely, be perfectly happy to be alone.   The important distinction is how one feels about it.  Obviously, those at greatest risk are those who live alone.

In my next blog, I will discuss some ways to prevent loneliness and isolation in retirement and later years.

[1] The paper was published in the July 2016 issue of the British journal Heart.



At the age of 92, Diana Athill, British editor and author, closed down the flat where she had lived for many years and moved to a single room in a retirement home. Writing recently about her new downsized life, she said: . . .

Nothing in the room is here out of habit, or because it was given me by dear old so-and-so, or because I couldn’t be bothered to get rid of it. Everything, from the carpet to the biscuit tin and including of course the too-many pictures, ornaments and books, is here because, however uninteresting it might be to others, I love it. It’s as though ‘possessing’ has been distilled down from being a vague pleasure to being an intense one: less is more.

I was reminded of another quote: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” That was from William Morris, an English architect, furniture and textile designer associated with the English Arts and Crafts Movement.

I watched two friends struggle with downsizing for a move to smaller quarters, and saw how difficult it was to get rid of possessions that have accumulated over a long period of time. It made me look around my own house and see an accumulation of stuff that was neither beautiful nor useful. At the time, I had no intention of moving to smaller quarters, but still I got motivated to eliminate some of this stuff that I no longer had any use for. I vowed that when the time comes, I will have already found homes for it all, and won’t have to resort to indiscriminate dumpsterizing.

Some things are easy to get rid of – old papers and magazines, books I will never read again, kitchen gadgets rarely used, clothes that no longer are appealing. (The clothes that no longer fit are a different story – they represent hope – of a leaner, more attractive self). This is a clue as to why this is so difficult: Some of our clutter represents our identity, our dreams, or image of self, our hopes for future (hopefully thinner) selves.

Other things will take time to sort through and what to do with them. It looks like an overwhelming task, but I break it down and take it slowly, a drawer or a shelf at a time. I am making progress in the kitchen and a corner of the basement. The files of teaching materials are harder – I put a lot of myself into developing them, and my identity as a college professor is wrapped up there in those file drawers.

Having achieved a few empty drawers and shelves, I  resolved to keep them that way. This required a change of thought process and resulting behavior. I see many lovely things in my volunteer time at Ten Thousand Villages, a shop selling handicrafts from third world countries. However, my new mind set is this: Everything that comes into your house sooner or later will have to go out of your house, either by you or by somebody else. Do you really want this item? Usually the answer is NO.

I hope by the time I have to down size, I will be able, like Diana Athill to have distilled my possessions down to only those I love. When I was a child, my mother made me iron my cotton batiste slips. I hated it, thought it a totally useless waste of time. I vowed I would never be ruled by my possessions. Less really is more. Less is freedom.