Look at That Sky, Life’s Begun – Talking to Parents About Their ‘Golden Years’ of Retirement

Look at That Sky, Life’s Begun – Talking to Parents About Their ‘Golden Years’ of Retirement

I’m a ‘70’s guy. So when I hear ‘golden years’, my mind strays momentarily from retirement planning to David Bowie.

The album that holds the old track in question dropped in 1976 – Station to Station. My sister snagged tickets to Bowie at the ratty old Boston Garden, a glorious place to see a rock show. Anne said two teenage girls, dressed in 1920s evening gowns, probably stirred up at some Cambridge charity shop, carried bundles of red roses to the stage for Bowie to grasp and caress.

When the guitarist scorched out the combustible ‘Stay’, Les Paul slung to his knees, Anne says she trembled in unimagined new ways, swore she’d marry a rock star. She settled for an IT guy, haw-haw. So it goes.

Born in ’59, I was destined to have my golden time in the seven-oh decade. We started out mellow, immersed in liberating ourselves, shooting peace signs to strangers. We ended robed in jet black, hurling said strangers to the floors of punky dance halls. Look back, if you can, and you’d think it was life on Mars.

Part grown, half baked, I was untroubled by anything. But leave home for school, get hip to females, learn from heartache and failing at everything, graduate, face bills and Windsor knots, and you’re forced to grow up. Try as you might, you can’t stop it. I did my best, mind.

Then there’s that thing – where you learn to go easy on the parents. It finally dawns: they’re only folk, been through the same mill as you. That’s good, but then comes a moment when their mutually clumsy humanity nearly jars out your teeth.

Jump up to 1985: my brother decided to marry again – third time’s the charm! I flew into Minneapolis – was it my first time on a plane? – and my parents were waiting at the airport diner. Oh, that was sweet! But then they started into bickering.

What were they fighting about? Fill in your blanks. Petty, sniping, childish, just goofy – not the descriptors one normally sticks to parents without blushing. Despite wanting to honor the Fifth Commandment, a Greek omelet was cooling before me, and their table-shaking ruckus was impeding my feed.

“Listen, you two,” said he who dared, “if you can’t act your own age, at least try to act mine.” Paul’s getting married, again, let’s enjoy the ride. You know, for three seconds they looked like two scolded children.

I’m supremely embarrassed to have talked to Alec and Marie so boldly. “Fresh monkey,” I’d have heard back if I hadn’t been right. They needed to hear from their newly minted, just-adult son. Time marches on and roles change, if just a wee bit, one step at a time.

There are times to talk plain to your parents, if maybe more reasonably, for our topic today is making sure your parents are ready for retirement. The sooner you launch these discussions – and, truly, you’ll be facing a series of talks – the better they’ll enjoy those gilded days of ease, and the better you’ll sleep at night.

The first thought that springs up is money, but that isn’t the hot topic. First, approach the ‘vision thing’ – get at their desires for retirement. My dad was plain: leave me alone in my tomato garden; if the game is on TV, quiet; I’d like to see the Grand Canyon (Paul fixed it); Cooperstown has that Baseball Hall of Fame, it sounds good to me. Well, these we could manage. Mom wanted to be near a telephone. Reasonable folks, my parents, when they weren’t making like Tom & Femme Jerry.

Delve into your parents’ dreams, but with a mind to keeping things real. Recently, I saw an advert for retirement planning services that really boiled my goat. It shows a happy, tooth-gleaming retiree couple in wet suits, him firmly V-shaped, her appealingly yoga-fied, toting two surfboards, if you please.

I am not having it. First, they were clearly in their 40s, the terminus station for belly flopping off a longboard, and I speak from regrettable, salt-water-swallowing experience. Second, and following logically, action-adventure sports kill seniors. Let’s discuss this carefully because the propaganda of the ‘active senior’ has gotten obtuse.

An active senior takes long walks, listens to fresh e-books and takes up photography or gardening. He or she does not dive out of planes or volunteer with one of those landmine clearing trusts. I don’t care what you’ve heard – trust me and my mate Jack.

I had it in mind to buy an e-bike – good exercise, without popping one’s heart on the hills. I asked Jack, my boon pal who knows all, for advice.

Jack lives in New Zealand, where death-defying sports are played with white knuckles and an insouciant shrug. He chortled, as he does with me, like death choking on a cruller.

“Do you have any idea of the injury rates for you 60-plus guys riding those [expletive] e-bikes?” Jack had the stats; he’s a walking actuarial table of doom. Realism, though – she never loses her listenability. I’ll stick to taxis and tuk-tuks, I guess.

So, you’re motivated to talk to your folks – but what do you say? The questions are endless but fall into manageable categories. Recall, now: safe fantasies first. Now we can figure: will they have the income to make those dreams real? That first topic is individually personal, but the money chats can be guided by your own experience in financial and retirement planning. You have started on that task, haven’t you?

When talking about resources, assure that nothing is neglected. It’s funny what people forget – stock options, old bank accounts, even 401(k) plans – but things tend to turn up over patient discussion.

My mother worked for 30 years at the Snow Pharmacy in downtown Concord – there for a century, now barely a memory. Hadn’t the owner promised her something? Mom was too polite to ask Walter, her tyrannical boss – I think she was afraid she’d strangle him. I hunted him down, and the loveable old pirate was anxious to pay up – even buccaneer pharmacists have hearts. It was just a couple of hundred a month, but it paid down mom’s mountainous phone bills. It repays to ask everyone – everything.

What about healthcare: will your parents depend solely on Medicare, or do they have supplementary insurance? Long-term healthcare coverage is a solid idea today, and the earlier you buy it, the better the deal. This suggests not waiting too long to launch ‘the talks’. Start early and make it a family habit.

You’ll need to discover your own role in their retirement: they may be counting on you for a few bucks, or maybe to provide care when they’re laid low. It’s important to know, so you can prepare.

There’s plenty of debate on the best way to start these conversations with your folks. I think it’s simple: sit down at a table, laden with coffee and cake, and open your big yap. You’re too old now to be shushed, and you may find the oldsters are waiting for your advice, counsel, and care.

Finally: a chance to pay them back for all of it, by helping them out. And won’t you feel all grown up.

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