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home : columns : columns January 21, 2018

10/17/2017 1:42:00 PM
Of a certain age...
By Sue Stafford

"The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another."

~ William James ~

My sister-in-law lives in Santa Rosa. In the early hours of Monday morning, October 9, she lost her home of 35 years to the Tubbs Fire as it swept over the hill from Calistoga with no warning. With her house burned to the ground and a lifetime of memories inside, she was lucky to escape with her life after being trapped in her car in her neighbor's driveway due to a tree across the road.

When I received the news at 5 a.m. of her devastating loss, my first thought was, "I wonder if she will physically and emotionally be able to recoup after such a tragedy." Was I perhaps projecting my own possible reaction to such a loss? She is 10 years my senior and has had a few expected health issues. The shock of such a loss definitely takes a toll on a person, not to mention someone who is 83 years old.

While grieving the monumental losses, and most likely still in a state of shock, she now has to deal with all the myriad details following such a disaster: insurance matters, replacing basic necessities, finding housing in an area where 2,800 structures were ravaged by fire, arranging transportation, and basically picking up the shattered pieces of her life while fires are still threatening the area.

There will be ongoing stress in her life for months, at best. Stress can be deadly, exacerbating existing health problems or giving rise to new ones.

We all live with a variety of stressors and, as we age, the factors contributing to stress are as varied as we are as individuals, but there are a few most of us share. For those with healthy retirement funds and sufficient financial resources, money, or the lack of it, is probably not a stressor. But, for many seniors, dwindling resources is probably the number one worry. And, as a single woman, I am among those worriers.

Due to many years as a stay-at-home mom not contributing toward my Social Security, for me now to rely solely on a monthly check from the government just doesn't cut it. Between early withdrawals from my IRA to go back to school to earn my master's degree and the fickle stock market, my IRA ran out before I have. I am currently capable of supplementing my limited income as a freelance writer, as long as I retain my physical and mental capacities, a concern I visit occasionally.

Health and housing are probably tied for second place as far as stressful factors for those of a certain age. In order to continue working, I need to remain healthy. Some health factors I have control over, others I don't. It's up to me to eat right, exercise, get adequate sleep, see my doctors regularly, and take necessary medications. But as my machinery begins to wear out, unexpected medical problems arise and must be addressed. As monetary resources decrease, medical and dental expenses seem to increase. For some, hard choices arise between eating or paying rent and buying medication.

I have planned ahead and secured supplemental health insurance, which takes a chunk out of my Social Security every month, and a long-term care policy. However, the annual premium for the LTC policy, which I can't really afford but which I can't afford to be without, is hefty and the funds for that payment come from a reverse mortgage, which is slowly being consumed by property taxes, insurance premiums, and other big-ticket items not covered by my monthly income.

I currently own my home, for which I am extremely grateful. I have been able to tap the equity with the reverse mortgage, but that tapping must remain prudent and infrequent if my dollars and years are to keep pace with each other.

If I stay in my 17-year-old home, I am looking at usual home maintenance expenses like painting, deck repairs, a new roof, repair and replacement costs as appliances and other items wear out. These are all the things that run through my mind in the middle of the night and create a certain level of stress when I let them.

What makes all of these issues stressful is that they are connected with money as the common denominator. An adjustment in one area affects the others so it is easy to become trapped by indecision and inaction, which then perpetuates the stress.

Even such mundane activities as cleaning out my closets or lightening the collection of "stuff" in my garage gives rise to thoughts like, "But I'll never be able to afford to replace it if need be so I'd better hold onto it," whatever it is. The "what if" dance can create temporary craziness and again leads to inaction.

The feeling of being stuck is a stress inducer. How it impacts me depends on my current frame of mind, the time of year (long sunny days help keep it at bay), and my physical well-being.

As the obituaries of people younger than me increase, I am reminded that time is running out to set my affairs in order, so I don't leave a mess for my two sons. And thankfully, I have two sons who are realizing that I need help around the house and in the yard. They are both now living closer, one in Bend, and that is a comforting thought, but may not be a permanent situation.

I know I am fortunate to have my health with just a few minor glitches, my family and friends, a roof over my head, no debt other than the reverse mortgage, and a car that is paid for. I am living exactly where I want to be. I am alive to watch another summer meld into fall as the leaves are painted by frosty nights and the world settles in for a long winter's nap.

A deep breath or two to release the tension, a silent offer of gratitude for all that is good, and a focus on positive action all help to tame the stress dragon when he rears his ugly head.

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