The Long-Term Care Threat: 3 Horror Stories

Last Updated Jul 28, 2011 6:03 PM EDT

I've written previously about the potential threat of ruinous long-term care expenses, and my posts are full of strategies -- supported by facts and figures -- that can help you be prepared. But people often need personal stories to really "get it." I recently heard three horror stories that made me think that this is what gets me going in the morning -- doing what I can to help prevent situations like these.

Horror Story #1
There's an elderly woman who lives in our townhouse complex, and it's clear she has some form of dementia. She rents her unit, and she really let it go during the past few years. We've got good friends who live next to her, and they're really disgusted about the condition of her place. I'll spare you the gross details -- let's just say that eventually the owner had to hire a professional detox unit to clean the unit, and it took several days to get it back in livable condition.

The elderly woman doesn't have any other place to go, and nobody else to help her. She's now back living in the same unit. So what happens now?

Horror Story #2
A seventy-something friend of ours is taking in her 98-year old aunt, who ran out of money. The aunt's son can't or won't help his mother, for whatever reason. Our friend and her eighty-something husband feel very strongly about letting her aunt live with them, despite the extreme disruption to their lives. But what happens when the aunt needs some form of long-term care? Our friend still works full time, and her husband isn't really qualified or able to help if the aunt needs extensive care.

Horror Story #3
A relative in his late eighties was living alone, had a bad fall, and was unable to call for help. He was found dead by his niece a few days later, who was worried when he didn't answer the phone. Nobody knows how long he lay there before he died.

Normally I'm not a fear-monger, and I like to look at the bright side of things. But the threat of long-term care expenses in our later years is one area where a little fear might be a good motivator. If these horror stories have startled you enough that you want to make sure nothing like this ever happens to you, what should you do next? I suggest three things:

  1. Get serious about taking care of your health. By adopting healthy lifestyle changes, you can significantly reduce the odds of incurring debilitating conditions -- even Alzheimer's or dementia -- in your later years,.
  2. Develop a robust social network of friends and relatives who will help look after you when you're older. Find some way to have contact with people every day; that might even include sharing your house or moving to a more formal, shared-living situation.
  3. Implement a strategy for paying for long-term care. This can involve some combination of long-term care insurance, setting aside savings that are dedicated to paying for long-term care insurance, and/or holding your home equity in reserve for the day when you might need to pay for long-term care.
By addressing this issue now, not only will you improve the quality of your later years, you'll be improving the quality of life for the family and friends who care about you.

Image from iStockphoto contributor Yuri_Arcurs
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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Retirement Game-Changers: Strategies for a Healthy, Financially Secure and Fulfilling Long Life and Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck.