There's no denying that it's hideously boring to plan late-life options, like assisted care, as well as your estate. This fact, compounded by our natural fear of death, accounts for why such a shocking number of Baby Boomers have nothing in place for their last years or their death. You'd be amazed at how many people give me a blank stare when I ask if they have a living will or long-term-care insurance. These are responsible, organized, professional types -- many of whom have dependents relying on them -- and they've done nothing to plan. If they were to go tomorrow, they'd leave behind a chaotic mess for their grieving loved ones to try to manage. And you need to plan ahead for your own sake as well -- you can get so scared at the end that you don't always think clearly. That's why it's essential to do things calmly and rationally now. Here is a list of things to consider:
• Where You Want to Live. Be realistic about what you can manage as you get older. A three-story house isn’t easy to maintain, so you are probably going to want to downsize to an apartment or condominium where most of the upkeep is managed for you. Beyond that, you will most likely need to consider assisted living or a nursing home. Go look at these places for yourself before it's a necessity -- find the ones you like and get on a waiting list if you have too. This takes the burden off your family, and everyone will be happier to have a plan in place if and when it becomes time to go.
• Your Will. If you don't have one, get one. IMMEDIATELY. Find a good lawyer (ask people you trust for a recommendation), and have him or her walk you through the process. This is the ONLY way we can be absolutely sure that our wishes are carried out with regard to everything from money to personal property. Once your will is complete, make sure that everyone knows where you keep the copies.
• Your Wishes for Medical Care. Discuss your preferences with your children or spouse while you're healthy and create a living will (different from your other will) so no confusion later on. Specify what kinds of medical intervention are okay, and when/if you would prefer to use a resource like hospice. These questions can cause great strife among families if they are not answered ahead of time, so now is the time to get everyone on the same page.
• Long- Term Care Insurance. Although the premium costs can seem expensive if you're in perfect health, long-term care insurance can be a blessing if you wind up spending many years in assisted living or a nursing home, as my parents did. The bills pile up faster than you'd ever expect, and sometimes there is no end in sight. It's a pile of money that's there for your use if you need it, and it's an enormous relief to know that you're covered. You can also investigate government subsidies for nursing-home care.
• Finances. If you don't have an accountant or money manager already, now is the time to get one. Diversify your holdings, and be vigilant about following your portfolio and seeing a paper trail. I personally think that it's best to avoid the aggressive young stockbroker types who want to move your money around constantly. The amount of risk we can afford varies from person to person, but for my part, I want to be invested in longer-range holdings at this point in my life.
• Clutter Versus Heirlooms. When you have to go through someone else's home, it's easy to mistake heirlooms for junk. You will save your loved ones a lot of time and energy (and possible regret) by clearing and weeding things out NOW. Throw the clutter and nonessentials away, and make a list of what in the house is important, either for sentimental reasons or because it's valuable. Even if you've told your son a hundred times why you love your father's eagle chest that's in the hallway, this is a chance to reiterate why it's significant for you. Remember to include anything that might be in storage. Then type the list, give everyone a copy, and keep a copy with your wills. This is also a good time to specify who gets what: My brother, niece, and I divided up my parents' things before they died, so it was unemotional, and then we typed up the list, my father gave the okay, and there was no arguing about it after they were gone.
• Memorials. My mother-in-law had planned her whole funeral right down to the psalms and hymns, and we were so grateful to have everything in place. As difficult as it might be to do this now, your family will thank you for it. You might also consider sitting down with a tape recorder and leaving a farewell message or writing letters to your friends and family now, when you can be calm and placid. You can remind listeners of little anecdotes so that the history isn't lost when you are gone. And tell them that you love them and try to give them some comfort. It's a wonderful gift for them and will help them through their periods of grief.
Tina Sloan is the author of Changing Shoes: Getting Older - Not Old - with Style, Humor, and Grace, which you can order at http://www.amazon.com. She played the role of Nurse Lillian Raines on Guiding Light, which aired its final episode in 2009. She is currently shooting two feature films and touring nationally in her acclaimed one-woman show Changing Shoes.