November 2012 - Going Solo
After last month’s message, someone asked me what a person who is alone should do without a spouse and without heirs. Then a friend talked about not wanting to burden her son with her care, and a caregiver described being effectively single and knowing she would outlive her partner. I can’t write about this from personal experience, but these moments really got me thinking about how many parts of planning for the future are altered for people who are alone, and how very important it is to plan. The birth of another column!
In 2010, only 42% of women and 72% of men age 65+ were married. About 5% were never married, many are divorced or widowed. Going Alone, by Eric Kleinenberg, states that more than 50% of American adults are now single, a growing choice which is changing our culture. His research indicates that rather than being lonely and isolated, singles are very engaged in social and civic life. People who are single are introducing exciting new models for living, including house-sharing and co-housing communities. Many are content to be alone. Whether you have been single for a long or short time, you need to have an appropriate plan in place, as should everyone.
It is a fact that many people will outlive their spouses. Losing a spouse (to death, dementia or other chronic illness) is a turning point when you should re-evaluate your plan. What is the best living situation for you? Who will your care team be? Some people do not want to (or know they can’t) rely on adult children who are raising young children, working, or live at a distance. Do you have friends, relatives, a faith community or another network , and how much can you realistically ask of them? It might be a good idea to engage a care manager who can get to know you now, then be ready to step in if you have a crisis or need services, either short- or long-term.
You should also designate someone you trust as your power of attorney for health and legal decisions. This person does not need to be a family member, but should be someone you can talk to extensively about your wishes and with whom you will have ongoing contact as your life unfolds. I also recommend choosing someone as a healthcare partner, to drive to and sit in on important doctor visits, be your hospital advocate, and who has your signed permission to discuss your care with the doctors (even when you are of sound mind).
If you have no heirs, it is important to think about what you want to do with your assets. This includes your home, material goods and financial resources. Update the beneficiaries on your policies (life insurance, IRA, etc). Are there special items that might be treasured by a friend, neighbor or relative? Do you want to leave something to your caregivers? How about a bequest to your college or favorite charities? You can also set aside funds for a memorial concert, event, or other celebration in your honor. This is a great opportunity to create a lasting legacy. Talk to a financial planner about setting up a charitable remainder trust which gives you income for your lifetime as well as a gift to the organization of your choice. These instructions must be written down so they can be followed. When you do not designate beneficiaries, the State will determine who benefits according to specific laws which may not reflect your intentions.
A related aspect is what happens to your “stuff.” If you have no heirs, a stranger may sort and dispose of your stuff. You can start going through it now, making a list or labeling the things you want to give away and where they go. Better yet, give them now so you can hear the recipient’s appreciation! The mug with the butterfly on it should go to the niece who always looked for it when she visited, and the antique tools to the living history farm, not to the flea market or dumpster.
All of these recommendations are best practices for anyone, but it is especially important for someone who is alone to be sure you have plans for all aspects of your future so you can enjoy it without worry.
Susan W Hoskins LCSW
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