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Long-Term Care Advice From an Olympic Gold Medal Winner

"He could coach me to the Olympics, but I was stunned when I found out that he had no plans for his long-term care." World-class swimmer, Wendy Boglioli, who won a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics, was talking about her father, a lifelong smoker who contracted various heart and lung diseases and needed intensive care for the last several years of his life. "It would have broken his heart to know that it nearly bankrupted my mother," she says.

Wendy recently contacted me as a result of my prior posts on long-term care. We recently had an insightful and engaging conversation, during which she told me about her family's story. Wendy and her six siblings banded together, first to help with their father's care, and now to help care for their 90 year-old mother who has dementia and has spent the past 28 years as a widow. Wendy's parents didn't prepare for long-term care, and when her mother's health started declining, it was too late for her to buy long-term care insurance or make other plans. Sadly, this is a story I hear all too often.

Wendy told me that according to researchers at insurance firm LTC Tree, by 2020, one out of three boomers will be significantly involved in the care of their parents. A majority will be women, who may have to quit their jobs to provide parental assistance at a time when they need to be building retirement benefits for themselves. While long-term care is a compelling issue today with our own parents, it's also a wake-up call for when we get into our eighties and beyond. The action steps we take today will have a profound impact on our final years of life.

Wendy turned her experience with her own parents into a mission to help others understand the challenges of long-term care. She speaks around the country on long-term care issues and is also a spokesperson for Genworth, one of the leading insurance companies that sells long-term care insurance.

When it comes to long-term care, Wendy has two important pieces of advice for us baby boomers. First, imagine that you'd need long-term care now, possibly as the result of an accident. (This isn't an unrealistic exercise; four out of ten people who need long-term care are age 64 or under). Investigate how you would get that care and what it would cost. According to Wendy, there are four ways to obtain and pay for long-term care:

1. Family and friends
2. Government programs
3. Long-term care insurance
4. Out-of-pocket

Which method is realistic for you? If you don't buy long-term care insurance or if you haven't made other plans to pay for long-term care, then essentially you're relying on friends and family. Of course, you could always rely on a government program to help you out, but in my opinion, that isn't realistic, unless you're OK with exhausting your assets and possibly staying in an institution you'll likely find undesirable. This really only leaves family and friends, but is it reasonable to think you'll be able to rely on them, given their work and family commitments and where they live?

This exercise makes the idea of long-term care real today, rather than at a time that seems so far in the future. Working through this now should give you the necessary motivation to make a plan for how you would obtain and pay for long-term care, if you should need it.

Wendy's second piece of advice is to put this plan in writing and discuss it with the people you love. After all, they'll be the most likely people to implement this plan. Realize that when you need care, you may not be in a position to clearly express your needs. Although it can be hard to start these conversations with your loved ones, that shouldn't stop you. For some good ideas on breaking the ice and other tips on talking about long-term care, see Genworth's Let's Talk website.

During our conversation, Wendy and I shared our own experiences with helping our parents with long-term care. One thing we both said is that it can bring out the best in our siblings -- or the worst. Disagreements over how to care for mom and dad can tear brothers and sisters apart. Having a plan in writing is a good way to prevent this from happening. After all, you certainly wouldn't want to create a situation that might have your children in bitter disagreement over your care, on top of the other financial and emotional strains caused by the need for long-term care.

My thanks go out to Wendy for giving us an inspiring example -- first in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and now with the even-greater challenge of finding ways to make our rest-of-life as stress-free as possible.

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