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How to Afford Retirement

You can't.

This is not meant to be funny - there is no amount of money that will save you from the coming financial, medical, and environmental apocalypse. Plus your children will abandon you so you will die alone. It's happening to a dear lady up our street - she's lost her wits and spends most of the day putting out leaves or trying to remember the name of her cat. When I grew up, my mother's mother dominated our family life for 20 years, and from that experience I learned something very important. How you speak to the elderly changes your life. You learn more from that difficult negotiation, which is a mix of diplomatic relations and a DMZ, than from any other single relationship. My son is currently with staying with his grandmother in Cambridge, and though this morning he found larvae in his cheese sandwich it's the give-and-take, the occasional landmines, the how-was-your-day-dear, and the unexpected calls from the fire department that prepare you for the real world.

When I was at Riverside one Friday evening working at the Blue desk a man came in with his wife, who was suffering very badly from Alzheimer's. He asked if he could leave her with us while he parked his car, and I said brightly that I would meet him at registration 300 yards further down in the Green area. He readily agreed, and I wheeled the patient through the maze of corridors, attempting to keep up a conversation until her husband arrived. Time dragged until our routine had become something out of a Beckett play: "Your husband will be here soon." Silence. "He's parking the minivan." Unintelligible. "It's a lovely evening." "My name is Mary." "Your husband will be here soon." When he returned a full 20 minutes later I had run out of repertoire and we were ringing the changes on four or five predictable conversational patterns. He glared at me, probably because he felt guilty at the time he had taken, but also because he feared I was making fun of his wife, until he realized what I was doing. We were wearing down pathways in the brain, making ruts in empty space. The ability to talk to the elderly is now reserved for specialists and children in families fortunate enough to have an old person still present in the home.

Bernard Wilburn, my dear friend and firebrand, was furious on his recent return from Denmark. If you want a discounted ticket to a museum there, you have to ask for the "pensioner" rate. Why, he wanted to know, doesn't America have pensioners? How can a word just leave the lexicon? Where the hell is our safety net? In England, I told him, my parents' generation would always make fun of the OAPs (Old Age Pensioners), a solid voting bloc of people put out to pasture. To retire at my age in England (I'm 57) would be seen as a clear sign that one had been "pensioned off." But all these offhand phrases indicate one salient and beautiful fact of life: in the United Kingdom and in Denmark, the elderly have pensions. The society that they built takes care of them. Children not only talk to their elders, they provide for them. This happens in every developed and every undeveloped country in the world, except the US. What kind of a country does none of those things?

So "Surviving Retirement" will not be easy. The United States of America makes it hard for enough groups to thrive, God knows, but the fate of the retiree is certain oblivion. Perhaps this is why nobody likes to retire early in this country. Actuarial tables circulated at the "State Teachers Retirement Countdown" indicate that the longer you wait to retire THE LONGER YOU LIVE. This can be attributable to many statistical factors: those who retire early may be more likely to have fatal diseases or go scuba diving; those who retire at 70 are probably more boring and risk-averse than the average bear. But on paper, it looks as though by retiring early I am giving up 1.7 years of my life. But at least, even if there's no way I can afford it, I will enjoy them.

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