When Retirement Goes Wrong
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now, we want to take some time to talk about retirement. Later this hour, we will hear from someone who decided to retire at the advanced age of 32 and - no, his last name is not Buffett or Rockefeller or Gates. We'll ask him why and, equally important, how he managed to do this. That's coming up later this hour.
But first, we realize that, for millions of people, retiring comfortably, even after decades of work, after years of planning and saving, is not a sure thing because life happens. Our next guest is on a mission to steer people about the curves and bumps in the road ahead because he's living it. His name is Stan Hinden. He was a financial reporter for The Washington Post for two decades from 1996 to 2003. He wrote the Retirement Journal column for the Post, but even his best laid plans weren't enough to fully prepare him when illness struck his wife Sara a few years into their retirement.
His book, "How to Retire Happy," is about the 12 most important decisions you must make before you retire. It breaks down all of those choices and what happens when life takes over and undoes them all. And he's with us now in our Washington, D.C. studios.
Welcome, Stan Hinden. Thank you so much for joining us.
STAN HINDEN: You're welcome and thank you for having me.
MARTIN: And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I think we should tell people that you were actually one of my first editors at the earliest days of my career. So thank you for that.
HINDEN: And it was a pleasure all the time.
MARTIN: For better or for worse, we can thank you for unleashing me on the world. Well, thank you for that. So, first of all, tell us - I think a lot of people will remember your Retirement Journal column and you didn't make it sound easy, but it did make it sound as if you had it under control. Like, how much planning had gone into your retirement before you actually did decide to retire, retire?
HINDEN: Well, the funny thing is that I retired, even though I was a financial writer, without knowing anything about retirement. I knew nothing about Social Security or Medicare or Medigap or pensions or any of the things that retirees are supposed to know about before they retire so they can make appropriate decisions based on that information.
I retired sort of willy-nilly and only after I started writing the column that I suddenly discovered there were all these things out there that I hadn't learned about. And so my mission became to try to educate future retirees about what they were going to face and what they needed to know.
MARTIN: Why do you think you did that? I mean, do you think that it's partly because you started your career at a time when, if you worked for a certain number of years, you'd get a certain number of dollars for a certain amount of time? And do you think it was partly because you grew up in that era as opposed to the 401K era where, from early on, you're told it's your problem, your responsibility? Or do you think most people are really that way? They don't really think that much about it.
HINDEN: I think that's true. I think most people don't and, to tell you the truth, I wrote so many stories, I had so many deadlines that I frankly didn't pay much attention to my own situation, but, basically, it all worked out.
MARTIN: Well, let's talk about how it all worked out. I mean, you realized you really hadn't paid that much attention to retirement, you know, overall. How did you get your hands around that situation?
HINDEN: Frankly, by studying. I like to compare retirement to taking a long trip abroad. And you wouldn't take a trip like that without doing a lot of research, finding out what the weather is, where you're going, what you're going to see, what the currency exchange is. You do a lot of work. In fact, I think many people do more work to plan a trip than they do to plan their retirements.
MARTIN: You're very honest about the fact that you were worried that you were going to run out of money.
HINDEN: I was worried, indeed. That's why I made the decision to take a 100 percent pension for me, leaving nothing for my wife. But because I hadn't done the right arithmetic, I didn't realize that she would be much worse off after I passed away without pension annuity. So, it just demonstrated to me that, without some study and some time planning, that you could make errors.
MARTIN: So that issue aside - and that's a big issue, but that issue aside - you were enjoying life. You traveled. You had a lot of friends. You had a really, you know, rich life together, which is, I think, the life that a lot of people hope for in retirement, and then you started to notice that things were not all well with Sara. You want to talk about that?
HINDEN: Your description of our retired life is accurate. We did have a good time and we enjoyed it. In 2007, it became apparent that Sara was having a problem, asking the same question over and over again, and so we started down the road with the doctors and the hospitals and all of the tests and the very frustrating thing was that all of the doctors had no answers for us.
You know, ordinarily, when somebody gets ill, you have hope for their recovery. You visit somebody in the hospital and you expect that at the end of the week or month or whatever period of time they'll get up, walk out and be well. For people who are afflicted by Alzheimer's, that is not the case and the doctors have no cure and, so far in the research, they haven't found the magic bullet yet. So, that is very, very difficult for somebody who has a loved one who's afflicted that way and somebody who's a caretaker.
MARTIN: I can't - I don't want to skip past the emotional side of it. I know our focus is the financial side of it, but I can't skip past the emotional side of it. I mean, this is a person who has been at your side for 50 years and, you know, that can't be easy to see that person slipping away in front of you. I wanted to ask, what was the hardest decision that you had to make in all this so far?
HINDEN: The very hardest decision, the most emotional decision was, once we had decided that Sara could not stay at home because she needed 24-hour care, to find a place where she could get that care. There's lots of places available and there are lots of conditions, lots of different prices and different services. But how do you know which one place is going to take care of your loved one in an appropriate way?
MARTIN: Talk about, if you would - how much does this cost for somebody who requires that level of care?
HINDEN: Well, the latest figures show that the average cost of a single room in a nursing home is now $239 a day, which equates to $87,000 a year. That's an extraordinary amount of money and very few people have that kind of money. The only help that you can get in this sort of situation is to have a long-term care insurance policy. And I was fortunate that, at some point, the Washington Post offered long-term care policies to its employees, and I bought one for myself and one for Sara, so that the one bright spot in all of this is that we've had insurance that's helped out.
But even so, I mean, it doesn't pay everything and, for people who are in the more expensive facilities, they still have very large bills. I have neighbors where I live who were paying for their loved ones in local facilities. It was $9,000 a month. Some places that I'm aware of charge $12,000 a month or more and, you know, I don't know what the answer is. Nobody knows what the answer is, and so I think that what happens because of the cost of these facilities, a lot of families wind up keeping their loved ones at home and have the family help take care of the individual or hire aides coming in at $21 an hour.
MARTIN: And that wasn't a solution for you because the level of care she required was just more than you could manage?
HINDEN: Well, we didn't have the kind of apartment that would allow one to have the kind of help you would need and we had an aide working 12 hours a day for three months. It wasn't enough, so we had to find a home for Sara to go to and I think we found a good one.
MARTIN: And even that, if you don't mind my asking, how much does that cost? You are comfortable with the level of care?
HINDEN: Well, our facility is about $4,000 a month.
MARTIN: Four thousand dollars a month?
MARTIN: And that's on top of your own living expenses because...
HINDEN: Oh, yes.
MARTIN: ...you can't live with her. Right?
HINDEN: I pay rent where I live and, you know, the other costs of maintaining a house.
MARTIN: Can I ask, do you feel - I don't know how to ask this. Do you feel cheated in some way, as if, you know, you did everything right and it's still hard?
HINDEN: I don't feel cheated. I feel sad and I feel more sad for Sara than for me. Whatever is difficult here, it's probably more difficult for her than it is for me, even though it's been difficult for me in terms of making sure that she's well cared for and visiting almost every day.
MARTIN: Do you still fear that you won't have enough to live on for the rest of your own life, or both of your lives? Because, obviously, anybody can hear you and can understand that you're still practicing your profession, as well as trying to have a full life and care for Sara, you know, as well. Are you afraid for yourself or for her?
HINDEN: No. Maybe I should be, but I'm not. I have faith that we'll get through this in some way as best we can. That's pretty much my philosophy. I'm 86 now and I've had a good and very interesting life and I've been really proud of my career in journalism and with my book and everything. I'm quite satisfied.
MARTIN: Well, your book is titled "How to Retire Happy." Are you happy?
HINDEN: I am happy. Yes.
MARTIN: OK. I'm glad to hear that. At least somebody is. I'm so glad to hear that. Any parting words of advice?
HINDEN: Start planning. One of Sara's pieces of advice was that preparation is next to godliness so that - be prepared is, I think, the bottom line.
MARTIN: Stan Hinden is the author of "How to Retire Happy: The 12 Most Important Decisions You Must Make Before You Retire." It's now in its fourth edition and he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.
Stan Hinden, thank you so much for joining us.
HINDEN: Oh, thank you very much, dear.
MARTIN: And our best wishes to you and to your family.
HINDEN: Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.