Monday, March 21, 2011

We Don’t Need Money for Retirement, We Need People

Here’s an important side issue to the big question of do we have enough money to retire in comfort: Do we have enough relatives and friends so we can decline or be ill in comfort? Some public discussion has arisen lately about which ethnic or class groups of Americans have fewer dollars set aside for retirement, with tut-tutting over which have more cash. I don’t think dollars are the only capital we can build up in our lives. When it comes down to it, dollars might not be as important as human capital. If I am part of a large family who lives near me, or deeply involved in a local social group like a church or a fire department or even a book club, then I may need less money for retirement or during an illness than if I am a loner whose only human contacts are via the Internet. Families and social groups often pull together to help people struck down by illness or old age. They create drives to buy needed medical equipment for one of their own, or medical treatment, for instance.

In my family, a daughter and a grandson provided most of the eldercare for our aged parent. Although we eventually did hire nurses to help, we also supplemented with friends who came over as unpaid sitters. Thus an elderly person did not have to go into a nursing home and become indigent to get government aid, and so on. If that parent had been completely alone, all the care would have been a cash transaction. Eldercare usually can’t be rendered in extremis by the friends of the person; very often the person has outlived all her contemporaries or they are too feeble themselves to help. Which is not to say that old friends don’t try to give whatever assistance they can. I know of more than one case in which people in their high eighties are giving care to friends in their nineties. But when the last person in a group has to stop driving, some help from a younger individual is necessary, or else cash must be available. Yet many aid programs only kick in when a person meets a needs test, that is, has no money. The assumption our governments make is that family and friends will provide most of the care.

Sometimes they do. When a person is ill, friends or family can pull together and trade off chores related to the person’s care: one friend takes her to doctors, another is the mediator with insurance companies, a third provides meals, others clean her home or sit with her on specified days, etc. Not everybody has friends or family like these, and some illnesses drag on or get complex, exhausting their abilities or expertise. Money again becomes a necessary substitute. But money ideally should be a third leg to the stool, a means of support after families and communities have done their share.

A statistician can quantify the services rendered by relatives and friends and give them a dollar value. We can investigate the cost of assisted living and nursing home living versus the cost of home health care, too. But the bottom line here is that some help can and should be unpaid. It makes a huge difference in how a serious illness goes or our declining years play out. We don’t all need $5 million in our retirement savings, because some of us will have people instead of money. On the whole, the people are the more valuable. Not because they give services free, but because they render them with a variety and often with a love and respect that few paid services can emulate.

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