Finding Forgotten Cash

  Americans have billions of dollars sitting unclaimed in bank accounts, pension funds and state treasuries.  Here’s how to track down any dough you are owed—and exactly how to claim it.

Bank & Brokerage Accounts:     

  1. Request Your Money:  Once your account starts gathering dust—meaning, typically, it has sat untouched for three to five years—banks usually transfer your money to the state of your last known address.  Visit unclaimed.org and follow links to the website of each state where you’ve lived.  If you find a listing in your name, you can request your cash, either via an online form or by mailing in a paper copy.  You can also recover money in a deceased relative’s account if you have proper documentation, such as a death certificate and proof that you’re the executor of the estate.


Life Insurance:

2. Run a Search:  Have you owned a life insurance policy, or do you think a deceased relative had one? It it’s not listed on unclaimed.org, contact the insurer.  Start with the agent who sold the policy, if you have the name.

    If you’re sure a dead relative had a policy but don’t know the insurer’s name, use the Life Insurance Policy Locator at naic.org, a service run by state insurance regulators.  For life insurance policies covering pre-Vietnam-era service members and service-disabled veterans, conduct a search at insurance.va.gov/unclaimedfunds.

Retirement Accounts & Pensions:

3. Get Help:   Should your former employer still be in business, an HR person can connect you with the current administrator of your 401(k) account or pension.  Failing that, visit freeERISA.com (free registration required) to find your old employer’s latest Form 5500, which has contact information for the administrator.  Was your 401 (k) terminated? Check askebsa.dol.gov/abandonedplansearch for contact info.  If your pension plan failed or was shut down, you may still qualify for a payment from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.  Look for your plan at pbgc.gov/search-unclaimed-pensions.

If all of this is fruitless, the nonprofit Pension Rights Center (pensionrights.org) may be able to help.

By Beth Braverman for AARP Magazine, April/May 2019      

THE ABC’S OF CREDIT BUREAUS

Almost two years have passed since hackers exposed the personal information of 148 million Americans held by the credit bureau Equifax.  But the fallout continues. New laws passed in September make it free for all Americans to freeze their credit reports—a strategy considered among the best ways to stop criminals from using stolen personal info.  (In the past, credit bureaus often charged for that service.) Yet much confusion remains about credit bureaus. What are they? What do they do? Can they be trusted to safeguard our private information? Here’s what you need to know about the industry today.  

  1. THEY EXIST FOR A GOOD REASON.  Any time you want to borrow money—whether it’s to buy a house or car, finance an education, or use a credit card—the company lending you the money needs to know you are trustworthy before it says yes.  Similarly, landlords, insurers and sometimes even employers want to know you are financially trustworthy. Credit bureaus emerged out of this need. Most banks, credit-card issuers and other companies lack the resources to collect and review the financial backgrounds of everyone who applies for credit.  So they agree to share financial information on their customers with credit bureaus, whose primary business is to consolidate and organize financial background on more than 200 million adult Americans. In return, they get access to this information when a customer applies for credit by paying credit bureaus a small fee.  It is a relationship that has worked well since the late 19th century.  (Equifax started supplying merchants with credit information as the Retail Credit Co. in 1899.

  2. THE INDUSTRY HAS CONSOLIDATED.  There are dozens of smaller and specialized credit-reporting bureaus, but the three big ones are Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.  They are the oldest, largest and most influential. Nearly every American is in their databases, and together they have billions in annual revenue.

  3. IT COMES DOWN TO A NUMBER.  Credit bureaus take all the info they have collected about you and apply their proprietary algorithms to assign you a credit score.  Depending on the bureau and its methods, scores can range from 250 to 900. The higher your score, the more likely you’ll be awarded credit, and the better deals you can negotiate when you buy a car or refinance a mortgage.

  4. YOU HAVE MANY SCORES.  It’s a myth that you have just one credit score.  Because there are so many bureaus and so many ways of slicing the data, you actually have dozens.  The credit-scoring company FICO, for instance, has specific algorithms for auto lenders, bank cards, mortgage lenders and even health care providers, each of which can be used by these specialized businesses to better gauge the risk of having you as a customer.  But whatever the method of calculation, federal law requires it to be “empirically derived and statistically and demonstrably sound,” says credit expert John Ulzheimer, formerly of FICO and Equifax. In other words, there must be science behind it.

  5. MISTAKES HAPPEN.  Over the years, there have been numerous consumer complaints and legal actions against the bureaus for inaccurate reporting and illegal marketing.  In 2015, for example, 31 state attorneys general won a collective suit against the Big Three over errors on credit reports. Included in that settlement was a $6 million fine and stricter standards for addressing consumer disputes and preventing mistakes in the first place.  Another important provision: Medical debt cannot be included on a report unless it has been with a collection agency for more than 180 days.

  6. YOU CAN’T FIGHT IT.  Try as you might, you can’t opt out of any of this.  It’s all perfectly legal and unavoidable. The system is so ingrained and complicated that even an expert like Ed Mierzwinski, a consumer advocate with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group who has been policing the bureaus since 1989, says he wouldn’t know where to begin to pull out of it.

  7. THERE ARE WATCHDOGS.  Given their clout, credit bureaus are regulated and scrutinized by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). These agencies’ oversight is based primarily on guidelines and rules set out in two major pieces of federal legislation, the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.

  8. SELLING FRAUD PROTECTION.  In recent years bureaus have expanded their businesses by selling consumers credit-monitoring services that alert you to potential credit problems and provide identity-theft protections.  It’s a natural evolution of their business. But outrage that Equifax appeared to be profiting from its data breach in 2017 is one big reason that Congress moved to make credit freezes free to all Americans.

  9. OTHERS WANT TO PROFIT, TOO.  The credit-reporting market has recently seen a proliferation of businesses such as Credit Karma, Mint, Credit Sesame and CreditWise.  Some dangle the promise of a free credit report or score to entice you into purchasing other services; others try to get you to click on advertisements or sign up for deals from credit-card companies, insurance brokers and other lenders.  They get paid when you do that. Most of these sites also have accompanying apps that make a game out of tracking your score, with tips for improving it.

  10. CAVEAT EMPTOR.  Credit bureaus have sought to make money by offering identity-theft protections.  But experts say you don’t need them. And beware of misleading marketing. “The FTC and CFPB have fined Equifax, Experian and TransUnion for deceptive marketing of these overpriced and generally unnecessary products,” Mierzwinski says.
  11. BE VIGILANT WITH YOUR SCORES.  Even if you think your major life purchases are behind you, our experts say everyone should monitor their credit reports and scores regularly.  You never know when you’ll decide to buy a condo in Margaritaville. It’s much easier to maintain a good score than repair a bad one. Negative information on a report typically lives for seven years; a Chapter 7 bankruptcy for 10.  And older people with good financial histories can be targets for scam artists.

 

(Written by Joe Kita for AARP.Org/Bulletin, March 2019)

11 Surprising Reasons Why You Can’t Sleep

Sleep.  It’s as elusive as leprechaun gold, and twice as valuable.  The number of health conditions linked to poor or inadequate sleep is almost endless, with obesity, diabetes and heart disease topping the list.  But sleep ought to be something we can control—just get to bed early and sleep the night away, right?

So, how come you’re still so tired? The answer may surprise you.  If you are not able to fall asleep, are waking up during the night or are just plain not feeling refreshed in the morning, see if one of these factors is souring your sweet dreams.

  1. BLUE-LIGHT INSOMNIA.   You’ve heart time and time again to turn off electronics an hour or so before bed because these devices emit a blue light that suppresses melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone.  However, glaring blue light even three or four hours earlier—like watching TV during or shortly after dinner—is enough to delay melatonin production, says Karl Doghramji, MD, director of the Jefferson Sleep Disorders Center in Philadelphia.  You don’t have to run off the tube, though. He recommends wearing a pair of glasses that blocks blue light (available from a variety of online retailers) until you tuck in (and when you wake up at night, too). That way, you have no problems winding down with the TV on.

  1. MENOPAUSAL INSOMNIA.  Declining estrogen can prompt disturbances—including hot flashes—in the middle of the night.  Research indicates that about a quarter of menopausal women have sleep problems severe enough to impact their ability to function during the day.  Head off hot, sweaty wake-ups by using sheets and pajamas that wick moisture, and sleeping on a buckwheat pillow, which is more cooling than traditional latex or down, advises Shelby Harris, director of the behavioral sleep medicine program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.  If your partner likes it warmer, consider having a separate comforter for each side of the bed.

  1. STEALTH CAFFEINE INSOMNIA.  While it may be intuitive that drinking coffee for an afternoon pickup could interfere with your sleep later, “people often have no idea that they’re consuming caffeine in other forms, like iced tea or chocolate,” says Beth Ann Malow, MD., director of the sleep disorders division of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville TN.  Everyone metabolizes it at a different rate, so you may be surprised what time of day you should be cutting off caffeine. “If you’re having trouble falling asleep, eliminate it after lunch,” she says.

  1. FREE-WHEELIN’ INSOMNIA.  “One positive among older adults is that they often feel as if they’re under less stress,” says Malow.  However, that can mean schedules go out the window—and make the time you go to bed or wake up feel less important.  But these times affect how your body releases melatonin later in the day. Maintain as close to a regular schedule as possible, even on weekends.

  1. NAP INSOMNIA.  “Many adults don’t nap voluntarily or intentionally, but often fall asleep when not busy or watching TV,” says Doghramji.  Either way, your brain sees it as sleep. The most common time of the day when people get sleepy is between 2 and 3 in the afternoon, when we experience a natural dip in energy, he says.  This may prevent you from feeling tired at bedtime; then spending too much time lying awake can contribute to insomnia. If your afternoon energy tends to be low, try scheduling something active for that time.  It will help you feel refreshed, and research shows that exercisers have better sleep quality, too—so it’s a double bank for your buck.

  1. BED-CONFUSION INSOMNIA.  Reading may be a relaxing activity, but you should take your book to an armchair—not your bed, Harris advises.  “I prefer that the bed is only used for sleep and sex,” she says. Even calm activities like puzzles or an adult coloring book can cause your brain to associate the bed with activities that you pursue while awake, which can affect your ability to drift off at night.

  1. ALCOHOL-INDUCED INSOMNIA.  Yep, a glass of vino can simmer you down and make it easier to fall asleep.  However, research shows that while it may help you conk out, there’s also a rebound effect that causes lighter and more fragmented sleep in the second half of the night; that’s why you’re up at 3 am.  It also decreases sleep quality—so you rise less refreshed. Limit alcohol to three hours before bedtime and imbibe moderately (one drink for women and two for men, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).  

  1. PRESCRIPTION INSOMNIA.  Sleep can also be interrupted by poor timing of your medications.  Some, like diuretics for blood pressure, can make you have to urinate more often.  More than one or two bathroom breaks at night is abnormal, Doghramji says. Others, like antidepressant SSRIs, can either be energizing or sedating, depending what type you’re on.  Ask your doctor about the best time to take your meds to ensure they won’t interfere with your bedtime.

  1. ANXIETY INSOMNIA.  You may be able to fall asleep just fine—that’s thanks to “sleep pressure” that builds during the day to get you down at night, Doghramji says.  But in the wee hours you may find yourself awake and staring at the ceiling, your mind spinning with worry. Your goal shouldn’t be to stop worrying (via writing down thoughts and the like) in the middle of the night, but to address the root cause.  Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) can help you retrain your thoughts to diminish the speeding of your brain, he says. A specially trained CBT-I therapist can help, but there are also apps available that teach you these important skills.  “Don’t just use them a 3 am; practice with these apps during the day,” Doghramji says. If you do need to use them at night, make sure to set your smartphone to night setting so they light doesn’t make you even more awake.

  1. BEDROOM-BASED INSOMNIA.  Lying in bed trying to force sleep to happen out of boredom backfires, Harris says.  It can convince your brain that being awake in bed is normal. Instea, get up and go into a different room, and do something relaxing and calm in dim light, she advises.  (No screens allowed.) Having an accepting mindset about it can also help. “Sleep will come when it comes. If not tonight, don’t sleep in to compensate—and you’ll likely sleep better the next night,” she says.

(written by Jessica Migala for AARP Bulletin, March 2019)

SLEEP WELL TONIGHT AND WAKE UP HAPPY!

(You know you feel better after a good night’s sleep—now science proves it.  Brazilian researchers report you’re five times more likely to feel calmer and happier the next day.  Here’s how to get your best rest tonight)

Can’t Drift Off?   Spritz your sheets!

Cozying up in lightly scented sheets helps 64% of women drift off more quickly by prompting the release of relaxing alpha brain waves, recent research shows.  Study author Jean Dyer, Ph.D., reveals some of the most soothing aromas are bergamot, sandalwood, mandarin and frankincense. To do: Combine 10 drops of essential oil and ½ cup of witch hazel in a spray bottle and spritz your bedding right before lights out.

Toss and Turn?  Try this chamomile!

To cut your risk of restless sleep in half, try taking 300 mg to 400 mg of a standardized chamomile extract daily.  According to researchers at Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University, this herb contains a compound that acts like a safe, natural form of Valium—and chamomile supplements contain at least three times more of this sleep-inducer than the herbal tea!  Try: Nature’s Way (Walmart.com). Note: Check with your doctor before taking supplements.

Awake too early?  Step outside in the AM!

Head outdoors for 20 minutes before noon—even if the skies are gray—and you could sleep 35% longer and more soundly, suggests research in the Journal of Sleep Research.  Explains study co-author Mark Peltonen, Ph.D., morning exposure to UV light resets your biological clock, and that prompts your brain to produce sleep-inducing melatonin for much longer during the night.

Getting up to go?  Take magnesium!

Some 65% of us regularly get up for nightly bathroom treks.  To cut those wake-up calls in half, take 1 tbsp of magnesium-rich milk of magnesia at bedtime.  Magnesium relaxes the muscles lining the bladder and urethra, Canadian researchers say, making hem far less likely to spasm and jolt you awake as your bladder fills during the night.
(Written by Brenda Kearns for Woman’s World, March 2019)

Immunity Boosters Reverse Brain Aging!

A strong immune system doesn’t just fend off spring viruses—UCLA researchers say it also protects against Alzheimer’s disease!  That’s because your hardworking immune cells act like tiny brain janitors, sweeping away harmful plaque deposits. To shore up your body’s defenses today—and protect your brain health tomorrow…

  • Read a great book.   Taking a 30-minute break each day for an absorbing read will cut your risk of spring colds by 40%—and it will make your Alzheimer’s disease risk plunge by an amazing 60%, report researchers at Kentucky’s University of Louisville.  The magic of regular book breaks? They give you a blissful escape from the daily grind, which cuts your production of immunity-weakening stress hormones in half!

  • Feast on fish.  Enjoy two 6-oz servings of your favorite fish or seafood weekly and your Alzheimer’s risk will drop by 62%.  Plus, if you do develop a bothersome viral infection, you’ll bounce back in just half the time, new research suggests.  Explains study co-author Sandra Kalmijn, MD the healthy fats in fish energize a specific group of immune cells (macrophages) that chew up dangerous brain plaques and invading viruses.

  • Sip a little wine.  Red or white, wine is brimming with immunity-boosting compounds called Polyphenols, and a study in the journal Biological Research suggests that these healing gems can reduce your risk of viral infections—and Alzheimer’s disease—by 58%.  Explains study author Luc Letenneur, Ph.D., 4 oz to 8 oz. daily will give you this great protection, plus it will cut your stroke risk by 30%!

  • Take the sunshine vitamin.  If your not getting 20 minutes of sun exposure daily—which can be tricky in March—taking 3,000 IU of vitamin D-3 is key.  British researchers say D-3, the nutrient your skin makes when exposed to UV light, single-handedly cuts your risk of colds and other viral ills in half, plus it reduces your lifetime risk of Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 55%.  Note: Check with a doctor before supplementing.

                (written by Brenda Kearns for Woman’s World)

HOW TO SHARPEN YOUR MEMORY

  1. GET MOVING.  Long staff meeting?  Take a short, brisk walk right after it to help you remember what was covered, says Terrence Sejnowski, PhD, a professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and a distinguished professor at the University of California, San Diego.  Sejnowski’s research also suggests that regular moderate exercise (elevating your heart rate above 85 beats per minute for 20 minutes) helps maintain the health of neurons in the hippocampus, the portion of the brain responsible for forming long-term memories.  Always misplacing your keys? Do an uncommon gesture (like hopping on one foot) before setting them down to help your brain mark the location, says Nelson Dellis, a four-time winner of the USA Memory Championship and the author of Remember It!
  2. VISIT THE “PALACE”.  Top memory athletes (yes, that’s a thing) use a technique called the memory palace.  Imagine a route through your house in which you visit areas—front door, living room, dining room—in the same order every time, says Dellis.  If you’re recalling a list of errands, imagine your dry cleaning at the door, your checks to cash in the living room, your prescriptions in the dining room, and so forth.  “To recall the list later, think of the memory palace and mentally navigate the same path, picking up the images you laid there,” says Dellis.
  3. MAKE IT WEIRD.    “For the most part, our brains are good at remembering pictures,” explains Dellis.  Instead of trying to memorize day-to-day essentials such as names, to-do lists, passwords, and so forth by brute force, he recommends turning them into pictures you visualize in your mind’s eye.  “The more bizarre or over-the-top the image, the better your brain will recall it,” he says. For example, if you need to remember to pick up milk on the way home from work, don’t just think to yourself, “I need to grab a gallon!” but also imagine something like your car stuffed to the gills with cartons and milk gushing out the windows.  The idiosyncratic image is far more likely to stick and be ready for recall later.
  4. PUT IT ON REPEAT. “Unfortunately, our brains are designed to forget,” states Dellis.  “The best way to hold on to something indefinitely is to review it more than once.”  Say there’s a casserole you make regularly and you want to commit the recipe to memory.  You could try memorizing the ingredient list and cooking instructions in one fell swoop, but a more effective strategy would be to spend a few minutes a day reviewing the recipe over a span of five or six days.  “You’ll spend the same amount of time,” says Dellis, “but you will retain the information much, much longer if you give your brain time to rest and revisit.”
  5. CATCH SOME Z’S.  A good night’s rest has long been equated with memory retention and optimal brain health.  But recent studies show that mere napping can also bolster memory. “Your experiences are consolidated during sleep,” explains Sejnowski.  “While eight hours a night is the standard-bearer, we now know that a nap also has a powerful effect.” A 2016 study from the University of California, Riverside, found that participants who partook in a 90-minute midday nap were better able to retain information and tackle creativity challenges.  But even a quick 20 minutes of shut-eye can send the brain into REM sleep and help preserve memories, adds Sejnowski. Nighty night.

                               (written by Caroline McKenzie for Real Simple, March 2019)

5 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT ANNUITIES

(Income for life is nice, but it comes at a price)

There’s a lot to love about having a guaranteed source of income for life.  It gives you protection against running out of money and a greater ability to ride out the stock market’s ups and downs.  It might even lift your mood: Research has found that retirees with a predictable source of funds, such as Social Security or a pension, are happier than retirees who don’t have a guaranteed income.

Don’t have a pension?  Want additional regular income beyond what you can get from Social Security? That’s where an annuity comes in.  Here are five things you need to know before you buy one.

  1. THEY’RE SIMPLE—AND COMPLICATED.  Stripped to the basics, an annuity is a deal with an insurance company.  You turn over a sum of money; in exchange, you collect guaranteed income to help with your retirement.  The size of your monthly check is determined largely by your age and sex, and interest rates when you buy the annuity.  Now, for example, a 65-year-old man paying $100,000 for a single-premium immediate annuity (also known as a lifetime annuity) could get about $565 a month for life; for the same amount, a 65-year-old woman could receive $542 a month.  (Insurers set women’s payouts lower because of their longer average life span.)

But annuities aren’t all basic.  They come in many varieties—variable, fixed, equity indexed and more.  Some can help defer taxes; others allow people to invest in stocks and bonds while protecting against steep losses.

  1. THEY REQUIRE A COMMITMENT.  As nice as guaranteed income is, you may balk at tying your money up in an annuity.  “The one thing that consumers get about annuities is that you’re handing your money over to someone,” says Jamie Hopkins, director of retirement research at Carson Group, a financial advice firm.  “And the single biggest thing people don’t like is giving up control.”

That 65-year-old man, if he lives to 90, will receive nearly $170,000 over the years in return for his $100,000.  But if he were to die at 70, he would have collected a total of about $34,000, and any heirs would get nothing.

Avoiding that outcome is possible—at a price.  The man could buy a lifetime annuity guaranteed to pay out for at least 15 years, even if he dies before then.  In that case, his beneficiaries would collect for the remainder of the 15 years, but the annuity’s monthly payout from day one would be lower than that of a lifetime annuity without that guarantee.

Even a willing commitment has hazards.  Money spent on an annuity is money you can’t get at, or can access only at great expense, in an emergency.  Steve Vernon, author of Retirement Game-Changers, suggests putting only enough in a single-premium immediate annuity so the annuity and Social Security cover your basic living expenses.  “Invest the rest of your money,” he says, “and draw that down systematically to spend on travel, hobbies and spoiling grandkids.

  1. YOU NEED TO KNOW WHAT YOU WANT.  Annuities are sold sometimes as a source of retirement income and sometimes as a way to invest in the market and manage taxes.  Decide why you might buy. Do you want income now (and thus want an immediate annuity) or later (deferred)? Do you want a predictable payout (fixed income) or payouts that rise or fall with the financial markets (variable)?

If you’re on the cusp of retirement and your goal is to create a pension-like, guaranteed income, you can ignore the noise and simply buy a single-premium immediate annuity.

If you’re goal is to invest, you have other options. The fastest-growing annuity nowadays is a fixed indexed annuity.  You put your money in and you get a return linked to (though not necessarily matching) the performance of a market barometer such as the Standard & Poor’s 500 index of large U.S stocks.  Generally, your investment is protected if the index declines, while your gains might be lower than that of the actual index.

With a variable annuity, you pick from a menu of stock and bond funds and let that money grow tax-deferred.  You can addon features (called riders) that protect your principal or let you lock in a minimum income, usually with what’s called a guaranteed lifetime withdrawal benefit (GLWB).  And in most cases, your heirs can inherit a death benefit.

  1. SAFETY COMES AT A COST.  The price of this protection can be high and tough to tease out.  Basic fees, plus the cost of a GLWB rider, might add as much as 3 percent annually.  So if you invested $6,000 annually in a variable annuity that returned 7 percent per year before expenses were deducted, you’d have about $75,000 in your account after 10 years.  But with a mutual fund charging, say 0.2 percent annually, the same market performance would leave you, after expenses, with $87,700.

Limits on fixed-indexed (sometimes called “equity-indexed”) annuities are another cost.  If an insurer caps annual returns of an S&P 500-linked annuity at 6 percent, that’s the most you’d earn in a year—even if the S&P gains 19 percent (as it did in 2017).

And if you want to get out of a fixed-indexed or variable annuity, you might pay a hefty “surrender” charge, particularly in the first years after buying it.  

Still, such an annuity with a guaranteed benefit might be a good choice if you can’t stand risk.  “For the person who won’t buy anything other than CDs and bonds, get a variable annuity with a GLWB rider,” Hopkins says.  “The likelihood is that it will outperform CDS and bonds.”

  1. THE SELLER—AND SALESPERSON—MATTER.  Shop for single premium immediate annuities at sites such as ImmediateAnnuities.com or IncomeSolutions.com, which have quotes from various insurers.  Pick an insurer with a high grade (say, rated at least A- by the firm A.M. Best). “All you need to know is the credit rating and payout,” says CPA Mike Piper, author of the Oblivious Investor blog.

Comparisons are tougher for a fixed-indexed annuity or variable annuity, but be sure to understand the fees and surrender charges that you might face.  Both Vanguard and Fidelity offer relatively low-cost variables.

Finally, if a financial adviser suggests buying an annuity, ask what your alternatives are.  “A variable annuity will be the only tool in the shed,” says Breanna Reisch, a certified financial planner in Riverside, CA, “if they only sell variable annuities.”

Written by Ellen Stark for AARP Bulletin, January/February 2019

EMERGING FROM THE COCOON:

Getting older and retiring were not on my radar in 1979.  I was 41, married, with two young children, and my concern was more short term:  What should I do next with my career, which had focused on documentary filmmaking?

That year I took a family trip to visit my in-laws in Delray Beach FL.  My wife Ellen’s mom had managed an employment agency; her dad was a postal worker.  Approaching 70, they had saved money and had Social Security and pension income. They could live their generation’s goal of retirement among friends and peers.  But what I saw at their condo complex surprised me.

As residents played cards and mah-jongg they loudly debated interest rates, taxes, inflation heading for 12 percent.  I wondered, why aren’t they discussing golf, early bird specials, shuffleboard, grandchildren and health issues, as I imagined retired people would?  These people seemed to be cut off from the action, but still focused on it. They had moved to a new stage in life, yet still held on to the old one. This was a story to tell.

Back home, I wrote a story called “Cocoon”.  A cast of retired people worked hard and grew (caterpillar) to be able to have a retirement (cocoon), but instead of changing (metamorphosis) into something beautiful (butterfly), they were stuck.  Searching for a metaphor to deal with the inevitability of leaving their “earthly existence,” I had the characters encounter an extraterrestrial adventure.

Finding a way to get my story out to an audience did not come easily.  I heard 51 “nos” before a “yes”. Among the rejections were many who deigned to read a few pages and said things like, “This is a wrinkle story,” and “Old people don’t go to the movies.”  

It took five years to get a movie made, with a script by established screenwriter Tom Benedek and direction by Ron Howard, in 1985.  

The positive reactions to the story said to me that I got most of it right.  The movie won two Oscars, and critics called it “feel-good” and “uplifting”. My novel was published after the movie.  Cocoon was a New York Times best-seller and became a brand of sorts, and I went on to a new writing career.  

Now 81, I’m similar in age to the characters I created.  But life in 2019 is different than in 1979. I have purpose.  I’m working on new Cocoon projects—possibly a streaming TV series, new feature films or maybe even a stage musical.  And so I’m rethinking my premises. The questions I face in writing a 21st century Cocoon are many:  Must we, because of economics, continue to work past some so-called retirement age?  If we must, can we find that work? Have we financially, emotionally and physically planned for this period of life?  We are statistically living healthier and longer, but are we spending this gift of extra years stuck in our cocoons rather than pursuing new growth and experience?

What I see among my contemporaries in that those who have stopped working and have no vital interests or purposes of value punch a faster ticket to that inevitable end of earthly existence.  But I also know that this part of life’s journey can be more relevant, uplifting, active, exciting and celebratory today than the one I observed 40 years ago.

For example, I live in a suburb of New York City and note that many older homeowners have chosen to remain in their current homes or move to something smaller while staying in the area.  Some now travel all over the world. Several, past 75, are still working because they want to, while some I know continue to work because, financially, they must. Of course, there are still communities for residents over 55, here and in the warmer climes of Florida and Arizona, but the residents I know maintain active, year-round lives and travel.  The trip that I took to Florida four decades ago was primarily to bring our children to see their grandparents. Now grandparents do the traveling to see their families. I’ve got to consider all of this.

If my story has taught me anything, it is to never settle into my own cocoon.  For me, no matter how old I grow, retirement is not an ending or even an option, but rather a rewarding, fulfilling, ongoing series of beginnings.
(written by David Saperstein for AARP Bulletin, January/February 2019)

Put an Egg on It

Cooked
sunny-side up, this add-on improves most any dish!

Seems every
restaurant is getting in on the “top a dish with a fried egg” craze.  It’s also an easy, delicious trick to enjoy
at home.  Try some of these combos:

TIP: 
Fry your eggs sunny-side up in extra-virgin olive oil for better health
and flavor.

Breakfast:  
Whole-grain avocado toast

                     Roasted or home-fried
rosemary potatoes

                     Southern-style grits

                     Whole-grain pancakes, crepes or waffles

                     Corn bread

Lunch:         Turkey burger

                     Grilled portobello
mushrooms

                     BLT sandwich

                     Sauteed white beans &
kale or other greens

Dinner:        Polenta with Parmesan

                     Vegetable Pizza

                     Whole-grain linguine with
pesto

                     Stir-fried shrimp

                     Chicken chili

HOME WARS

(Older community association members who fall behind on fees face increasingly harsh treatment)

Leah Lally, a 51-year-old homeowner in Tampa, FL learned the hard way that dealing with a HOA (Homeowner Association) can escalate into a costly and years-long legal battle.

In 2015, Lally got nearly $700 behind on the $135-a-month association fees on her five-bedroom home.  She explained to the association’s management that she faced financial hardship while caring for her sick parents, and asked to work out a payment plan.

The management company that contracts with her homeowners association told her it would take the issue to the association board.  But two months later, as Lally waited for a response, she got a letter from a law firm saying that a lien had been filed on her home.  

Lally decided to fight.  More than three years later, Lally’s HOA claims she owes nearly $15,000—about $10,000 of that from attorney fees, interest and other charges.

“I refuse to bend because it’s not right,” says Lally, whose court case is ongoing.  “It’s cruel that they are aiming to put me out of my home.”

There are more than 345,000 community associations in America today, compared with just 10,000 in 1970.  Almost 1 in every 4 Americans belong to a CA, according to the Community Associations Institute.

The volunteer-governed organizations, which regulate everything from holiday decorations to grass height, enforce rules and protect residents’ property values.  

While members have long bridled at CA restrictions and fees, an industry survey shows that as many as 85 percent of residents are neutral or positive about their association.  But homeowners who wind up in conflict with their CA say the organizations have a dark side.

In a trend that has grown recently, when homeowners are late paying assessments or fines, their accounts are turned over to law firms.  In these cases, legal fees can quickly outpace the size of the original debt. In the worst cases, homes are lost to foreclosure, sometimes sold at auction for little more than the outstanding debt.

Michael Greenwald, a Boca Raton FL attorney, says law firms typically charge HOAs no money, but pass on legal fees to the homeowner.  That’s an incentive for the firm to escalate charges. A single missed payment can add up to thousands of dollars in a few months, Greenwald says.

Lawyers are expensive and stakes are high.  Many homeowners just pay up, even if they think the charges are unfair, he says.

Attorneys who represent homeowners say in many cases the law firms for community associations are more aggressive than the Cas themselves.  In 2014, for example, Kay and John Wynne lost their home in Lexington SC to foreclosure over a $3,800 homeowners association debt. Brian Boger, an attorney in Columbia SC defended their right to keep their home.  The judge vacated the sale. But Boger says homes are often lost for good. “It’s insanity is what it is,” Boger says.

Sawn Bauman, a senior vice president at the Community Associations Institute, says she thinks this type of problem is rare.  But Bauman says associations have an obligation to collect because assessments fund maintenance and other costs of day-to-day operations.  As for turning cases over to attorneys or collections agencies, “That typically would happen when a resident is just not responding or just will not pay,” Bauman says.

Attorneys who represent homeowners disagree.  They say bills are being passed on to law offices  more quickly than ever.

In Philadelphia, Jeffrey Greenspan, 64, filed for bankruptcy after running up more than $55,000 in assessments and legal fees in a battle against his condo association.

In Houston, the foreclosure prevention project at Lone Star Legal Aid has filed lawsuits on behalf of 27 older homeowners who faced foreclosure from unpaid fees since 2010.

In Phoenix, attorney Jonathan Dessaules has seen a sharp rise in foreclosures.  Senior are hit hardest. “Many of them are on a fixed income,” Dessaules says. “They can’t afford the attorney fees that keep going up and up.”

(written by Joe Eaton for AARP Bulletin, January/February 2019)