The naked retiree and life in the ‘Lucky Country’

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Retirees on park bench – Image by Just call me Mo https://flic.kr/p/eiewLK

Now that the naked retiree headline has got you in, time to say a quick hello from Stradbroke Island where I am taking a couple of weeks out with family. Today let me introduce you to guest blogger Kathryn Johnston who has a few thoughts to share on how retirees are getting on in the “Lucky Country.” Kathryn wrote this, the first in an occasional series, on New Year’s Day, coinciding with a new pension regime for retirees.

By Kathryn Johnston

This post titled “the naked retiree” is the beginning of a perspective of what is happening in Australia for older Australians. What does it mean to be a naked retiree? It is not about going to Alexandria Bay Beach on the Sunshine Coast or skinny dipping in a backyard pool. It is about the political landscape in Australia and its impost on older Australians. Politicians are our country’s custodians. They are elected to manage our country, our wealth, our health, our future.

As an older Australian I am interested in how older Australians are faring in this “great” country of Australia. Even while I write these words “great country” I ask, are older Australian’s getting a “fair go”? In 1964 when Donald Horne’s book “The Lucky Country” was released most of the populace understood he used the term ironically. Horne penned the words “Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck.” Over time, others misinterpreted Horne’s message and have used the term “lucky country” to mean we have the best of everything in Australia. In Australia, today, as we live on borrowed money and older Australian’s live on borrowed time we find we are not so “lucky”.

My question is “why are older Australians subject to ‘unfair’ political decisions made law through the parliament, laws that no politician will ever be subject to?” The decisions have been made and older Australians are the target and method for “getting the budget back on track”. The catch-cry is that without the changes to age pension entitlements commencing today – 1 January 2017, the age pension will no longer be sustainable in the decades ahead. Is there another way?

This matter first came to my attention when I was in Tasmania in October. There was an article in The Mercury newspaper titled “retiree battles to stop pension cuts”. Ron Tiltman, 76 years of West Hobart tells how he will be affected by aged pension cuts. From 2017 he is $14,000 worse off a year. For Mr Tiltman he decided to take his superannuation in cash after his partner and former teacher became ill with cancer. After her death, his entitlements under the current rules were he would receive $33,000 a year of her defined benefit superannuation and a part age pension of $580 a year. At the start of 2016 Mr Tiltman’s pension was cut to $270 and as of today, he will not receive any government pension. The Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia (ASFA) benchmarks the annual budget needed for Australians to live a modest and comfortable lifestyle. These are detailed below:

ASFA Retirement Standard   Annual living costs        Weekly living costs

Couple – modest $34,216 $658
Couple – Comfortable $59,160 $1,138
Single – Modest $23,767 $457
Single – Comfortable $43,062 $828

For Mr Tiltman to live a comfortable standard of living, which is what he planned for, he will need a yearly budget of $43,062. Now, under the government changes to the age pension, he must live a more modest lifestyle. As he said “it was implied that it would only be wealthy people affected – this is just wrong. Many of these people (i.e. those affected by the changes) are on very modest incomes and in fact 68% of those affected have a defined benefit income of less than $35,000.” Further, he said “this has hurt me – I’ve paid my taxes and now you see these politicians walking out of their jobs with huge pensions of their own” [1].

On 17 December, 2016 I read a letter to the editor of the Toowoomba Chronicle from Ray Harch who explained how he and his wife’s pension will be cut by more than $130. In his words “a great Christmas present”. If they had purchased a retirement unit at $500,000 they would have been eligible for a full pension but they chose to keep some money aside for unforeseen events as they aged. He questioned why older Australians should be penalised, those who had saved and planned for a more comfortable retirement. As he said the government “while at the same time wasting billions on other, in many cases, stupid programs”.

Then in the Brisbane Courier Mail it was reported that “half of older Australians fear they are ‘financially unprepared’ for retirement with looming pension changes. More than a quarter of Australians aged 55 and over are worried they will not be able to afford food or household bills, new research has shown.”[2]

One of the most telling stories [3] I have read in recent months is from Bob Parry, a pensioner who has more than 60 years’ experience as an accountant. Mr Parry was so angry about the changes he wrote to the Prime Minister, Mr Malcolm Turnbull. Mr Parry did several calculations and found that a single pensioner who had total assets of $541,295 under the “old” rules would receive a part pension of $9,761 per year but under the “new” rules they would lose their entire part pension. Their fortnightly income would drop from $955 to $579 a fortnight. Similarly, a pensioner couple who own their own home with joint total assets of $814,128 under the “old” rules receive $14,065 per year. Under the “new” rules their fortnightly income would drop from $1480 to $939.

Under the Turnbull government, whatever way you look at it, it is a mean-spirited cut for older Australians. Those who have worked conscientiously over their lifetime and gone without, in so many areas, will no longer have a comfortable retirement.

Due to the cuts and changes, many older Australians will soon be “skint” with savings eroded as they dip into their capital. The changes will make every older Australian spend their savings until ALL older Australians are in the same “paupers” pool relying on the full pension and a less than modest lifestyle. The government changes are successful in one area, that is, in penalising “middle Australia” to improve the life of the less advantaged. This is the life of the “naked retiree” – skinned to the bones! Older Australians who depended on and planned for retirement under the “old” rules – living in the “lucky country”.

You can read more on the “naked retiree” and other reflective topics in Kathryn’s blog, Scattered Straws. https://scatteredstraws.com/

Notes

[1] Story by Jessica Howard, The Mercury, Friday, 28 October 2016, p. 17

[2] Story by Monique Hore, Brisbane Courier-Mail, 30 December 2016, p. 18

[3] http://thenewdaily.com.au/money/retirement/2016/09/14/age-pension-assets-test/ – story by Jackson Stiles

Next week: She Who Also Sometimes Writes will have a pre-election piece for your greater edification. Meanwhile, I’m going for another nap.

 

Funeral costs a trap for the unprepared

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Photo of Shetlands war cemetery by Joanna Penn https://flic.kr/p/ri73H3

If there’s one thing that can put an unexpected dent in the household budget, it’s paying for a funeral. A new study by Finder shows that the average cost of a funeral in Australia ranged from $6,131 (Canberra) to $7,764 in Perth. Of course those who can afford it and deem it necessary pay $20,000 and more for a formal send-off.

Finder’s Money Expert Bessie Hassan says one in five Australians don’t have enough money set aside to cover a $500 setback.

“So if an unexpected death of a family member does arise it could cause significant financial stress.”

Finder analysed Funeral Planner’s survey of some 2,000 adults, which showed that 60% of Australians either haven’t thought about their funeral costs or are expecting relatives to foot the bill. The other 40% have probably gone the whole hog and pre-paid for their funeral, and/or the cost is covered under a life insurance policy.

Invocare, a listed company, owns major funeral businesses in Australia including Simplicity Funerals, Guardian Funerals and White Lady Funerals. Invocare’s 2015 annual report shows it has $422 million in funds under management, derived from pre-paid funeral contracts.

Trends are emerging that show a growing number of Australians are seeking out practical and affordable funeral offerings. Invocare found that more clients were choosing direct ‘committals’ without requiring a traditional funeral service. The other popular choice was to combine a church service with a committal service at a cemetery or crematorium.

There is growing demand too for “Green Funerals” which shun embalming and use biodegradable coffins or shrouds. This seemingly morbid topic reminded me of the darkly comic TV drama, Six Feet Under (2001-2005). SFU explored the dysfunctional lives of a family of undertakers. Every episode would start (spoiler alert) with someone dying (the essential plot element, in that it supplied the necessary corpse). After a season or two, the writers got better at building suspense so the by-now predictable death would still come as a shock, as the person who would soon pop his clogs succumbed to unlikely events including a lightning strike.

I’ve been to a few unconventional funerals/memorial services in recent years. There were a few where the body was cremated in a private family service then the ashes scattered later in a more public forum. A couple of memorial services have been held in locations loved by the dearly departed. So no coffin or wreaths, not even an urn with ashes. People whose loved one had gone to meet their maker spoke passionately and fondly of them. On one or two of these occasions, God never got a mention, nor did Buddha or Allah.

This trend may have something to do with the 30% of Australian who profess to be irreligious. In the 2016 Census (6.93 million people) described themselves as having “no religion”.

My old Scots Dad was fond of saying (apropos of dying) “Och, just roll me up in a carpet and put me oot with the rubbish.”  You probably have friends who say similar things, often bracketed with “if I get dementia just put me out of my misery.”

In practice this rarely happens. When the time came (1991), there was a wee church service and a piper played Over the Sea to Skye. Dad’s ashes were inserted into a memorial wall at the local crematorium, next to “Winnie” who died in 1966.

Don’t ask me what it cost because (typical family experience), everyone is so distressed at the passing that they surrender to the blandishments of the dark-suited undertaker.

The plot thickens

The argument against burial is increasingly to do with the finite supply of burial plots. Local governments are understandably reluctant to offer land to be locked up for perpetuity. Burial plot prices have increased dramatically in the past five years, as a result of pre-paid contracts. In Sydney a plot can cost between $4,000 and $52,000.

Nevertheless, She Who Has a Plan wants to be buried and has a burial site in mind. As always, she is more organised than me. I have a will but there is no fine print about what happens to my mortal remains. Whenever cremation is mentioned, I mentally replay that scene in the Coen Brothers cult movie, The Big Lebowski. John Goodman’s character Walter Lobchak, accompanied by The Dude (Jeff Bridges), climbs to a windy clifftop, ready to distribute his friend Donny’s ashes.

(video contains expletives)

More than 50% of Australians who die are cremated, with more people choosing direct cremation. This means you pay only for the body to be disposed of: there is no service and nobody in attendance when the mortal remains are set alight. Later, the family may hold a memorial service, usually in a place that held significance for the departed.

In Australia, a direct cremation starts at $1,500, though most pay around $2,900. That’s considerably cheaper than a burial organised by a funeral director. Just so you know I did some homework on this, it is legal to scatter ashes at sea or on land (with provisos). If you scatter ashes on private land you need the permission of a landowner. Ashes scattered at sea must be dispersed beyond the three-mile (4.82 kms) limit. If you are scattering in a state forest or national park, you need permission.

Some of the information in this essay was gleaned from this website which has a searchable tool on its website where you can shop around for the cheapest funeral option (if that is what you want).

A thorough investigation last year by Choice magazine left few coffin lids closed. This article by Allison Potter is available online

Choice answers the most obvious question; do you have to engage a funeral director? Choice could not find a law that says you have to, although you will find advice to the contrary. Laws differ from one jurisdiction to another, but it’s best to disbelieve those who say it is legal to bury Aunt Bridget near her favourite peach tree. In theory, a DIY back yard planting is possible, but only if the private land is larger than 5ha and the local Council agrees. In any event, burying a body changes the zoning to cemetery. Your neighbours may not be impressed.

This is an ex-parrot

Monty Python’s euphemism-laden sketch aside, Six Feet Under remains the benchmark for kick the bucket humour. From the opening episode to the ‘we’ll all go together when we go’ finale six series’ later, SFU set out to test the boundaries of many taboos. It is full of dark one-liners about the different ways individuals manage grief.

One fine example (from a list compiled by www.pastemagazine.com) comes from episode one. Ruth, matriarch of the Fisher family, flings Christmas dinner to the floor on hearing the news of her husband’s abrupt demise.

She tells her son Nate: “There’s been an accident. The new hearse is totalled. Your father is dead. Your father is dead, and my pot roast is ruined.”

You will note that, despite the show’s title, Ruth does not employ any of Wikipedia’s 128 euphemisms for death (obscure ones include Ride the Pale Horse, Tango Uniform, Hand in One’s Dinner Pail, Wear a Pine Overcoat and Assume Room Temperature).

 

Birthday musings about ageing and mortality

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Old man and dog – photo by Bob Wilson

So I’ve picked a table at the combined 70th birthday party, met the woman next to me and nodded to her husband. It’s an outdoor setting for 40 people with five big tables and much background noise from kitchen activities. We say hello to the hosts, and, according to the way their lips moved, they reply “glad you could make it to our birthday”.

After a while, I set my hearing aids to ‘noisy room’ which basically meant I could talk to the person on my right and She Who Sits on My Left. After the main meal I got up and milled about, having one-on-one discourse with people who tended to lean towards me and say things like “Sorry I missed that?”

The birthday girl made a short but gracious speech without benefit of microphone. We were all lip-reading like billyo.

“It’s good to see you all – and as Keith Richards said, ‘it’s good to see anybody,’ ” she quipped.

The birthday boy also spoke briefly and said that while it was lovely to see us all, he doubted he’d ever see all of us again in the same room. It was just the right sentiment for a 70th, where the guests were either approaching that day or had passed it some years earlier.

Crikey, this is becoming a habit, raising our glasses to people crossing the threshold of seven decades. Who’d have thought?

The conversations ranged around ageing, mortality, health scares, belief systems, technology and Donald Trump. I told someone mortality rarely occurred to me these days though when I turned 40 I’d lie awake observing my heart beat and wondering if and when it would stop. Neurotic, yes, but you knew that.

Comedian, actor and writer George Burns, who died at 100, once said “You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.” Burns also said that when he was a boy, the Dead Sea was only sick. So he carved out a later-life career making fun of his ability to live into his 90s and still smoke cigars.

Making A Movie About Moses

Some people seem able to reach a great age staying mentally supple. I picked up a book in the library by one Herman Wouk, author of the Caine Mutiny, et al. Turns out this book (The Lawmaker, about a new Moses movie), was written when Wouk was 98. He followed up at 99 with: Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author. He described the latter as “…the story of my life, light-hearted because I’m an inveterate Jewish optimist.” It was released in January 2016 to mark his 100th birthday. Wouk married Betty Sarah Brown in 1945. Betty, who was also his literary agent, died in 2011, aged 90.

I felt a surge of guilt about my long-neglected habit of keeping a daily journal when I read that Wouk has been doing this since 1932. What a trove for historians.

Like Wouk, George Burns advocated staving off old age by continuing to work.

“Age to me means nothing. I can’t get old, I’m working,” he said. “I was old when I was twenty-one and out of work. As long as you’re working, you stay young.”

Yeh, maybe, but Burns also said the key to longevity is to avoid stress and tension. Just how you do that and keep working is a secret many of us have never learned.

So we of the nearly-70 brigade return to our routines, tucked away in our semi-rural house, fans set on high, watching Breaking Bad and waiting for the next invitation to an event that isn’t a funeral. No wonder so many older Australians buy a road rig, preferably with the bumper sticker ‘adventure before dementia’, and traverse this big red continent.

In our society, siblings resolve between them the decision about caring for elderly parents. Some take care of their parents in their own homes, or under the one roof. Others hand-ball the folks to a retirement village, preferably one with an associated nursing home.

The onset of dementia usually accelerates the decision to admit Mum and/or Dad to an aged care facility. It’s not easy caring for people with dementia and it can only get worse.

In some societies, this outplacement of old folk is not culturally acceptable. Seniors, demented or not, are the respected elders of the tribe and take their rightful place at the head of the table.

Global Agewatch maintains an index which measures income security, health, personal capability and whether elders live in an “enabling environment”. Indicators include life expectancy, coverage by pension plans, access to public transit and the poverty rate for people over 60.

Switzerland is the best place to be if you are past 65 and wondering what comes next. Norway and Sweden are 2 and 3 in this important global index, which is to be updated in 2018.

Australia is ranked 17th, below countries including Canada, the UK and New Zealand. Australia ranks highly in some domains (health, social connectivity) but it ranks lowest in its region in the income security domain (62), due to high old age poverty rate (33.4%) and pension income coverage (83%) below the regional average.

So yes, some societies revere the elderly and there is never any question about one’s parents being moved to a retirement village or aged care facility. In China and Japan there is the Confucian code of filial piety, in essence a system of selfless subordinate relationships. An article by Mayumi Hayashi, however, considers the myths surrounding family care, filial piety and how these systems can break down in urban Japan.

Hayashi says the limits of family care were recognised by successive governments in the 1960s. But public residential care was restricted to people lacking financial means and family support. Other problems with Japan’s system include family ‘care’ that involves neglect and abuse. From the 1970s, large numbers of ‘abandoned’ older people became resident in hospitals, often with little need of medical care. This ‘social hospitalisation’ remains stigmatised, says Hayashi, and an option of last resort, like Obasuteyama.

The latter is a Japanese custom of the distant past where frail aged relatives (usually women), were allegedly taken to remote mountain areas and left to their fate. The practice was said to be most common during times of drought and famine. It was also sometimes mandated by feudal officials (although Wikipedia notes a citation is needed to verify this).

Myths persist of similar practices among other societies – for example the Inuit, placing their frail old ones on ice flows and letting them drift off to a certain death.

The notion of a loving son or daughter propping their old Da up against a tree in his favourite part of the forest has (for me) some appeal. The alternative, 24/7 care in an aged care facility, has none. The denouement is the same.

More reading:

Founder and former chairman of National Seniors Australia Everald Compton, now in his 80s, continues to campaign for seniors.

Kathryn Johnston’s blog Scattered Straws has lately has been focussing on the (financial) plight of the Naked Retiree.