the question that can only be answered one way

Both Bubelah and I have one surviving grandparent apiece. Until I was a young adult, I had all four; three of her grandparents had died either before she was born or when she was much younger.  But now we both have a single grandmother left.  It’s tough, of course, to lose relatives or friends but I think there’s something to watch the people whose genetic makeup pumps through your own veins pass away.  The loss of health is sad; the loss of mental health is despair-inducing.

My own grandmother, though, will be one of the last people to see her way through retirement with the following: her pension; Social Security; survivor benefits from my grandfather’s pension; and finally, the remnants of my grandfather’s aggressive and carefully planned investment strategy.  He began investing as a young man and was still studying stocks and monitoring his portfolio until the end of his life in his eighties.  My grandmother was typical for those days, too – she understood very little about their financial situation.  Like many women of the Greatest Generation, she focused on the expenses, not the income.

Once my grandfather passed, my parents took over my grandmother’s finances. I gave some advice but not much more than that.  Nonetheless, my grandmother has continued to rely on my opinion simply because I do work in a field related to finance and (vaguely) economics.  Speaking to her the other night, she asked a question which began to haunt me as a young man and these days has started to keep me up at nights.

“Do I still have enough to last until I die?”

A gambler or a credit card addict doesn’t think about that question. Tomorrow is tomorrow.  Somebody will be there to help:  daddy, adult children, the government, the market, the bank, Batman… but there is no scenario for most people that involves lying in the street freezing.  I imagine that in the worst case most people imagine being stuck in a government nursing home, but consider what a safety net even that is:  people expect the government to guarantee old age care.  Yet the same people complain about communists like me who’d like to see government-provided health care for all ages.

That question can only be answered one way:  yes. The question has two levels:  will I have enough for basic cable and fresh milk and the occasional new sweater on one level, and ‘is there a future where I am aged, infirm, helpless, cold and hungry’?

I don’t spend enough time around the elderly in general – I think we have a lot to learn, good and bad, from them – but I have spent enough time to realize that the question ‘do I still have enough to last until I die’ is going to be a scarier and scarier question in the years ahead. I used to worry about the first part:  would I have enough for me (at first), and then later, for my family:  enough to do a little traveling with Bubelah, send my grandkids a Transformers XIII action figure and so on.  But in my darker moods, watching the slow steady decline of the middle classes’ standard of living, the second part of that question creeps in, latches its claws into my lizard brain and stays.  That’s when I remind myself that there’s only one possible answer to that question; I have to make sure that answer is ‘yes.’

photo by Eleaf