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Reflections of a North Country Girl At Heart - The Unmentionables

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EDITOR’S NOTE:The following is an occasional column contributed by Ogdensburg native Marguerite (Peg) Cordwell Brown about her memories of growing up in St. Lawrence County. Peg, daughter of Vivian and Benjamin Cordwell, worked as a reporter for The Journal while she was a college student in the 1960s, and currently lives in Rhode Island where she is the director of development for Button Hole Golf Course and Learning Center, Providence. She hopes her column will serve as a reminder of a kinder, gentler time in the north country.

The Unmentionables

No, I don’t mean women’s lingerie—although the white cotton bras we grew up with should probably never be mentioned again—or my grandmother’s flesh-colored corset that had as many laces as Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara’s…

What I do mean are all the topics that were not part of polite family conversation.

Like money. A recent Wall Street Journal Article, entitled “How I learned to Talk About Money,” (Sunday, March 2, 2014), caught my eye because, in truth, this was not something that anyone really discussed while I was growing up. Of course, there were random comments such as, “that’s too expensive,” or “we can’t afford that right now,” or, “we’re not members of the 400 you know.” (This last reference was a carryover phrase from the Gilded Age of the Carnegies’ and Rockefellers’ book of the wealthiest of their era. We used it to describe those in Ogdensburg who belonged to the Country Club, now the club house of the public golf course on Route 37.) As the article comments, “Talking about money is one of the last great social taboos, seen as gauche, arrogant, cringe-worthy and, worst of all, boring.”

My grandparents, married in the early 1920s, certainly never discussed their net wealth, tax situation or estate plans (including another unmentionable—THE WILL). There was no mention of long-term care health insurance, or questions centered around, would they outlive their assets? I cannot even imagine what their reaction would be today to the costs of nursing homes, which even in the north country average about $5,000 to $6,000 a month. (Remember that it wasn’t until 1935 that Social Security legislation provided the opportunity for some relief from the catastrophic effects of large, unexpected hospital and doctors’ bills.) I never ever remember mention of the stock market, Dow Jones industrial average or the NASDAQ. Their children, my parents, lived through the depression and even though the post-World War II economy boomed, they, too, were pretty tight-lipped about money. It’s only in the story telling of their later years that we learned that they did not have credit cards, that they bought occasionally “on-time” (that is made monthly payments that were manually recorded in little ledgers), or that they bought their first house for $7,500 and had trouble meeting the $50 monthly mortgage payment.

I don’t ever remember having a family meeting over financial issues.I think that only really happened on the “Brady Bunch” when Michael and Carol Brady gathered the entire family for a discussion when difficult issues, including money, arose.In hindsight that show was probably about as realistic as imagining that our family would every visit Disney Land. I do remember one financial discussion—during my senior year I had received a New York State Scholarship for college.In the 1960s, those scholarships were not “portable;” that is, they had to be used at a college within New York. I had chosen to attend a college in Pennsylvania, which, to make financial matters worse, was private. Although I now know my parents cleaned out their entire bank account to assist with that tuition every semester, I don’t ever remember them letting me know how that expense was adversely affecting their lives—or how it might affect their vacation, spending or retirement plans. (They did draw the line at graduate school; that was on my own. I had to borrow a whole $1,500 to augment my assistantship during my master’s degree study.)

There were certainly other unmentionable topics—besides sex, that is. Health was another subject that was avoided. No one ever talked about the Big C—cancer. In the cases of cancers related to women, for example, there were no televisioninfomercials about prevention, self-detection, optional treatments or genetic testing. There were no “rallys for the cure,” looped pink ribbons on lapels or “pink-outs” at major sporting events. Perhaps a true family story would emphasize how closeted these topics were. When my grandmother was in her 70s, she was hospitalized with what I now suspect was a reoccurrence of cancer. When the doctor asked my father when his mother had had her breast removed, my father was completely surprised. I remember grandma lying on her couch recovering from major surgery—several times. Not even her son knew what the surgery had been for.

I also don’t remember family discussions about what would happen to grandma and grandpa when they could no longer care for themselves. In truth, for many generations, extended families lived in nearby towns—or at least near-by states. And, life expectancy was shorter. The percentage of individuals living into their 80s was small. Today, Hallmark markets birthday cards for those turning 100. It is not unusual for children in their 70s to be caring not only for grandchildren, but for their aging parents as well.Newspapers, magazines, and television commercials proliferate, advertising living communities for aging adults.Nursing homes are expanding, in-home care agencies are growing and the main question for many is “how are we going to pay for this?” For those of my generation who have navigated the independent living, assisted living and nursing home industries, the answers can be startling. The bottom line—we should all aspire to die poor because every asset (anything over between $7,000 and $14,000 in New York State) that is still in our possession will be expended for our long-term care. The topics that were unmentionable must now be addressed directly. How and when will you prepare for your own care? When will you turn over your assets to your children, or charity, or establish a trust that will allow you to distribute your wealth as you wish—not as your health care provider requires? It’s a complicated, frustrating and potentially expensive exercise.But, if in your family, this issue in particular continues to be an “unmentionable” and you or your children expect some assets to pass to the next generation, it’s a topic that must be put to a family meeting.

Author’s notes:

In 1920, 4.9 million Americans were age 65 and older. By 2000, that number had risen to 34.9 million. By the 2013 census, almost 14 percent of America’s population was 65 and older. According to the 2010 census, America is the home of the world’s largest population of centenarians—over 53,000 people were 100 years old or older. This was a 66 percent increase over the number of Americans who were 100 and older in 1980. Today the fastest growing segment of our population is 100 years old and older (it used to be those 85 and older).

I used the figure of between $7,000 and $14,000 for the assets an individual could keep in New York state before Medicaid took over most of the cost of long-term care. That changes state by state. Essentially, individuals are allowed to keep the approximate cost of a funeral. In fact, some nursing homes require that when your loved one is admitted, you must indicate who will be responsible for the funeral and, in some cases, demonstrate that the funeral has been paid for.And don’t think that you can get sick and then turn everything over to children or charities.There is a five-year “lookback” now. That means that any significant gift you may give away during the five years pervious to needing long-term care will be subject to scrutiny and result in a recalculation of your benefits. When Medicaid does take over, most of the individual’s Social Security income will also be garnished.In Rhode Island, Medicaid patients in nursing homes who receive Social Security are allowed to keep about $80 a month for personal expenses.

Bottom line: If there is no will, if there is no estate plan, call a lawyer. You’ll be surprised at how complicated the rules can be.

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