Tag Archives: Baby Boomers

Getting it right: Writing your own obituary

When Edna Briggs dies, she doesn’t want a well-meaning loved one to whitewash the ups and downs of her life. To avoid that, she is writing her own obituary.

Briggs, who is 69 and lives in Los Angeles, wants her farewell to offer insights into why her life turned out the way it did. Her two children might not understand how certain events — her father forbidding her from trying for a scholarship to Howard University, for example, or the pride of earning a prestigious internship — affected her path, so she’s handling it herself.

“I will describe my life the way I want it described,” says Briggs, a health care administrator and passionate genealogist. “I believe in having the final say.”

It’s an idea with which many Baby Boomers can identify, says Katie Falzone, spokeswoman for Legacy.com, a website that partners with newspapers and funeral homes to publish obituaries.

“Baby Boomers are comfortable talking about themselves in a way that previous generations never did,” says Falzone. “They’re used to defining their lives,” and to challenging the status quo.

While less than 1 percent of the obituaries on the site are self-written, the number is growing, she says.

Last year, the site ran about 525 self-penned obits, compared to only about 165 a decade ago.

The number has doubled in the last five years.

Who better to recount your story than yourself, says Sarah White, a writing coach in Madison, Wisconsin, who teaches a “selfie obituary” writing class online and at senior centers and libraries.

“Who knows all the parts of your life? Your children know you as a parent. Your co-workers know you professionally. Your spouse probably knows very little about your life at work. They say your siblings are the people with you your whole life,” she says. “I wouldn’t leave this up to my siblings. They don’t know anything about me.”

Kerry Kruckmeyer, who died unexpectedly in April, wrote the obituary that recently appeared about him in the Arizona Daily Star.

“I thought this would be different, amusing and enjoyable,” he wrote. He concluded that he had lived “a very good and blessed life for which I am most thankful.”

Kruckmeyer had distributed the document to his family about a decade ago, says his brother, Korey Kruckmeyer of Tucson, Arizona. “It’s typical of him,” Korey says. “It reflects his sense of humor.”

And the self-written obituary struck a chord with readers. “I’ve gotten a bunch of calls from people who don’t know me or Kerry just wanting to talk about it,” Korey Kruckmeyer says.

Writing such an essay — whether or not it’s actually published someday as an obituary — can be “very affirming,” White says. “It always seems to add up to more than the person realized.”

The writing process got Jim Weber of Tumwater, Washington, thinking about his future as well as his past.

“You may find you have some unfinished business,” says Weber, 60. “It may cause you to make decisions about how you want to spend the rest of your life.”

In his self-written obituary, he notes a strained relationship that he would like to see healed. He also pokes fun at his life, connecting his pursuit of a law degree to hours spent watching “Perry Mason” with his mother, and pointing out that he met his “third and final wife” in the freezer section of the local grocery.

White’s own selfie obituary highlights her love of traveling with her husband, her career as a commercial artist and writer, and her passion for her pets and the outdoors. “She also camped frequently in Wisconsin’s north woods,” she writes, “but would not reveal her favorite campsite even upon her deathbed.”

Putting your life down on paper is also an opportunity to share family history with future generations, she said. “I think people should leave a record of their life,” she says. “Be the ancestor you wish you had.”

Taking White’s class made Pattie Whitehouse of Victoria, British Columbia, realize she had a lot she wanted to say. She ended up with a document of more than 900 words, and intends to continue editing until she meets her ultimate deadline. Whitehouse injected some humor in the piece, which focuses on her passion for the environment. For now, the final line reads: “As she wished, Pattie’s remains were chipped and used as mulch.”

“Which tells you a lot about me,” the 65-year-old says. “The people who know me will recognize me in it.”

She plans to give the document to her partner, Robert, and her sisters to distribute upon her death.

Briggs, a widow, is putting everything in writing because her daughter doesn’t want to discuss the matter, she says. As a genealogist, Briggs says, she has seen too many erroneous obituaries. She also knows that handling the task now will make things easier for her daughter when she passes.

Alan Gelb, 66, of Chatham, New York, began thinking about preparing his final words when he started attending more funerals.

“When I would go to services, I found myself missing the voice of the person who was not with us,” he says.

Gelb, who helps high school students draft college entrance essays, decided that older adults could benefit from a similar task. In his book, “Having the Last Say: Capturing Your Legacy in One Small Story” (Tarcher Books, 2015), he encourages readers to write a story that captures some of their core values, to pass it on to future generations. Gelb recommends having the story read at your funeral. The exercise is a good segue into obituary writing, he says.

“Writing your own obituary is sort of like voting for yourself whenßyou run for office,” he says. “It may be a bit self-serving but it is fully warranted, and it can make all the difference.”

Letting hair gray naturally is a growing trend

Joanne Hudson’s friends didn’t hide their surprise when she mentioned earlier this year that she was considering letting her gray hair show. Most were enthusiastic and supportive. But they treated the idea of going naturally gray as a bold, gutsy move.

Coloring her hair was considered the default decision, says Hudson, 52. Going gray was not.

At 58, Lydia Bishop opts to color her gray hair, though occasionally a few silver strands show through. When they do, her 88-year-old mother speaks up in code, pointing out with gentle concern that “Mrs. White is visiting.”

One of these days, Bishop might just let “Mrs. White” stick around.

“I’m ready to let all my grays come out,” she says. “But my boyfriend isn’t ready to face that we’re old enough to have gray hair.”

After a half-century, Clairol’s famous “Does she or doesn’t she?” query has been answered with a resounding, “Of course she does. And her husband and kids probably do, too.” Suburban moms in their 40s are adding dark blue streaks to tresses that are already colored brown or black, while 79-year-old Robert Redford remains perennially sandy blond.

But gray hair? That’s for college students and young pop stars like Lady Gaga who step out with shimmering, dyed-silver locks, rather than for baby boomers reaching the milestone ages long associated with gray hair.

Chatter crops up online when 61-year-old John Travolta appears with a solid block of mahogany hair on top of his head and incongruous salt-and-pepper sideburns peeking out underneath. But it’s the unflattering look that causes a stir, says celebrity fashion stylist Felix Mercado, not the fact that Travolta, or anyone else his age, colors their hair.

Whether we’re conforming to popular beauty standards or defying them, we “don’t ask for permission anymore,” says Hilary Aquino, assistant professor of history at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania.

The strict definitions of beauty and femininity that prevailed generations ago, she says, have become a bit more flexible. That’s great news for baby boomers who don’t want gray hair and also don’t want the trouble of lying about it.

But the silver “#grannyhair” that teens are embracing doesn’t always get the same positive response when it’s framing a middle-aged face.

For starters, natural gray hair has a different texture than hair that still holds its original color. It can be unruly and dry, announcing that something has changed.

“Gray hair is a sign of aging and today, in that association, it still creates as much anxiety as it did in the past,” says Wanda Balzano, associate professor of women’s and gender studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. She sees a false liberation, rather than progress, in the widespread acceptance of banishing gray hair.

“What is different today is the fact that men are becoming increasingly conscious of their hair image,” Balzano says, “and have thus joined the ranks of women in being conscious of how they look.”

Eden-Renee Hayes, professor of psychology at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, agrees: While the choice to dye your hair at any age and to use nontraditional colors “may seem bold and liberating,” she says, it may actually be a new way of conforming.

Have we gotten so comfortable with people dying their hair that we’re unhappy when they don’t? Does gray hair mean automatic grandparent status?

Ashley Broadway-Mack, a 42-year-old mother of two young kids who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, doesn’t have much gray hair, and usually colors it. But when she lets a few gray strands appear, the response has shocked her. Strangers have assumed she was her children’s grandmother, rather than their mother.

Broadway-Mack’s wife, Heather, tells her the gray hair is flattering, but those comments from strangers have left her wondering: If she stops coloring her hair, will she be pigeonholed as “old” in a couple of years, when her children are bigger and she’s ready to seek a full-time job outside her home?

Hudson, for her part, has found it professionally useful to let her gray hair show through. In her work as director of the Ridgefield Independent Film Festival, in Ridgefield, Connecticut, she says she gets a different response in meetings now that her gray hair has emerged. It’s as if her experience and knowledge are visible along with those strands of gray.

She doesn’t worry that going gray signals that she’s over 50. In the entertainment industry, where she has made her living as a playwright and event producer, “they’re always looking for the next twenty-something anyway.”

“As soon as you’re a few years beyond that,” she says, “you’re old already.”

Classic toys ‘baby boom’ing

Nana’s list includes an Easy-Bake Oven for Pip.

Papa wants to give Gavin a Slinky.

And Aunt Connie is looking for Colorforms for all the nieces and nephews. 

Many baby boomers visiting toy stores this holiday season will be buying familiar toys for girls and boys. Some toys, like the Duncan YoYo, never fell out of favor as stocking stuffers. Other toys get updated year after year to remain relevant, like the Easy-Bake Oven — which now has both a dedicated heating element that retired the un-green incandescent bulb and gender-neutral packaging.

Hasbro holds the rights to many of the toys loved by boomer kids, their kids and now by their grandkids: Scrabble, Twister, Monopoly, Playskool and Play-Doh sets.

“One of the first Christmas presents I remember is a Play-Doh Fun Factory,” said baby boomer Paul Armstrong of Milwaukee. “I would have been maybe 4 years old. Like 1962. It was marketed by Play-Doh Pete. I loved it. Hours of fun.”

This year, Armstrong plans to buy a Play-Doh set for his 5-year-old grandson. “Of course he wants the Star Wars Play-Doh. It does look pretty cool.” The Play-Doh line features more than one Star Wars-themed set. The Millennium Falcon Playset features Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and Darth Vader can-heads and fighter-jet molds.

WiG caught up with other early shoppers of the baby boomer age outside the exits of several toy stores and found them with purchases they didn’t know much about: Descendants dolls and Little Live Pets Clever Keet, Click-A-Bricks and Nintendo 3DS games.

“I’m still looking for a Doc McStuffins Take Care of Me Lambie — whatever that is,” Rachel Goodman, grandmother of three children, said as she left a store, unknowingly in search of a plush doll that sings a song when her tummy is pressed.

But many boomers’ shopping bags contained the tried and tested — Erector Sets and Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs and Tonka trucks, Hot Wheels cars and Barbie dolls

“I’ve bought so many toys for the kids and grandkids over the years. The fad stuff. The gadgets. The electronics. Most of it doesn’t last the winter, but some toys last forever,” said boomer Jen Miles, a member of the generation credited with giving rise to a U.S. toy industry. “This year, I’m going with the classics, what I know and what has value.”

Not so golden: Wealth gap lasting into retirement

William Kistler views retirement like someone tied to the tracks and watching a train coming. It’s looming and threatening, but there’s little he can do.

Kistler, a 63-year-old resident of Golden, Colorado, has been unable to build up a nest egg for himself and his wife with his modest salary at a nonprofit. He has saved little in a 401(k) over the past decade, after spending most of his working life self-employed. That puts him far behind many wealthier Americans approaching retirement.

“There is not enough to retire with,” he said. “It’s completely frightening, to tell you the truth. And I, like a lot of people, try not to think about it too much, which is actually a problem.”

With traditional pensions becoming rarer in the private sector, and lower-paid workers less likely to have access to an employer-provided retirement plan, there is a growing gulf in the retirement savings of the wealthy and people with lower incomes. That, experts say, could exacerbate an already widening wealth gap across America, as more than 70 million baby boomers head into retirement — many of them with skimpy reserves.

Because retirement savings are ever more closely tied to income, the widening gulf between the rich and those with less promises to continue — and perhaps worsen — after workers reach retirement age. That is likely to put pressure on government services and lead even more Americans to work well into what is supposed to be their golden years.

Increasingly, financial security for retirees reflects how much they have accumulated during their working career — things like 401(k) accounts, other savings and home equity.

Highly educated, dual income couples tend to do better under this system. The future looks bleaker for people with less education, lower incomes or health issues, as well as for single parents, said Karen Smith, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank.

“We do find rising inequality,” said Smith, who added that it’s a problem if those at the top are seeing disproportionate gains from economic growth.

Incomes for the highest-earning 1 percent of Americans soared 31 percent from 2009 through 2012, after adjusting for inflation, according to data compiled by Emmanuel Saez, an economist at University of California, Berkeley. For everyone else, it inched up an average of 0.4 percent.

Researchers at the liberal Economic Policy Institute say households in the top fifth of income saw median retirement savings increase from $45,539 in 1989 to $160,000 in 2010 in inflation-adjusted dollars. For households in the bottom fifth, median retirement savings were down from $8,433 in 1989 to $8,000 in 2010, adjusted for inflation. The calculations did not include households without retirement savings.

Employment Benefit Research Institute research director Jack VanDerhei found that in households where annual income is less than $25,000, nine in 10 saved less than $10,000, up slightly from 2009. For households with six-figure incomes, 42 percent saved at least $250,000, up from 34 percent five years earlier.

The days of retirees being able to count on set monthly payments from pensions continue to fade among non-government workers. Only 13 percent of private-sector workers now participate in “defined benefit” plans, compared with a third of such workers in 1985. They’ve been eclipsed by “defined contribution” plans, often 401(k)s, in which employers match a portion of employee contributions.

Americans know they need to save for retirement. The trick for many is actually doing it. It’s estimated that about half of private-sector workers don’t take part in a retirement plan at their current job.

“Over the years, all I’ve been able to do, especially as a single parent, is just pay your bills every month,” said Susan McNamara, a 62-year-old adjunct professor from the Boston area. “Anything that’s left over is used up when your car breaks down or when the furnace breaks down. … There’s never anything left over, ever.”

McNamara is divorced and her son is now grown. But she has had heart issues linked to cancer in 2004 and related financial worries. She sold her home to meet expenses. McNamara has a defined contribution plan from past stints as a full-time professor, but its balance is under $50,000.

Or consider Kistler, who makes $41,000 a year working as a benefits counselor for a nonprofit health care provider. He has no substantial savings beyond the 401(k) worth roughly $19,000, and he has debt. He plans to keep working.

Kistler is philosophical about being on the short end of a retirement gap, though he wonders what will happen when boomers in his financial situation begin retiring by the millions.

“This next 10 to 15 years is going to be quite interesting,” he said.

EBRI, a Washington-based nonpartisan research group, projects that more than 55 percent of baby boomers and the generation that follows them, Generation X, will have enough money to last through retirement.

But EBRI also found the least wealthy boomer and Gen X households are far more likely to run short of money in retirement. Under some models, 43 percent of those in the lowest quarter run short of money in the first year of retirement.

VanDerhei, EBRI’s research director, said members of that group are relying mostly on Social Security and lacked consistent access to retirement plans over their careers.

Many of those retirees will find that it won’t be enough, David John of AARP’s Public Policy Institute said, noting the average monthly Social Security retiree benefit last year was about $1,300.

“In the long run, if we have significant numbers of people retiring on Social Security and very little else, there’s going to be a tremendous pressure on state and local governments for additional services, ranging from health to housing to libraries,” John said. “There’s going to be significant pressure on the national government to provide additional support.”

John said a good first step would be to ensure more workers have the ability to save through employer-sponsored retirement plans.

For many, it will mean working to a later age and cutting back.

In Brooklyn, 60-year-old Madeline Smith is already thinking about a modest future. While she has no illusions about living the “little fairy tale” of a cushy retirement, she also is confident she can get by, maybe working part-time, living simply or even renting out her house.

“Sometimes you have to learn to be a little bit more conservative,” she said. “I think a lot of people are learning that now as they get older.”

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Bill seeks to end social security discrimination

Social Security spokesperson George Takei tells Baby Boomers to “Boldly Go” online to register for retirement benefits. The actor-activist of “Star Trek” fame now is telling lawmakers to boldly pass legislation to extend those benefits to same-sex couples.

In late April, U.S. Rep. Linda Sánchez, a California Democrat, introduced the Social Security Equality Act of 2012, which would end the Social Security Administration policy denying same-sex couples who are married in their states the same benefits as heterosexual couples.

Sánchez announced the reintroduction of her bill at a Rock for Equality rally out- side the U.S. Capitol that Takei and other activists attended.

“No American should ever be treated differently by the country they love because of who they love,” Sánchez said. “Social Security is based on a simple formula – work hard, pay into it with each paycheck, and be able to retire with dignity. This must apply to all Americans, regardless of their sexual orientation. It is time the Social Security Administration ends a misguided policy that discriminates against same-sex couples.”

The measure, which Sánchez first introduced in 2010, would terminate the SSA policy that denies spousal retirement, spousal disability, survivor and death benefits to same-sex couples because the federal government does not recognize their relationships. Male same-sex couples receive about 18 percent less in Social Security benefits than heterosexual couples and female same-sex couples receive about 31 percent less than heterosexual couples.


• Spousal retirement benefits allow a low-income spouse to be eligible for either their own benefit or an amount equal to one-half of their higher earning spouse’s benefit. It is common for one partner to earn more and pay more into Social Security than the other. Once both partners have retired, one may qualify for benefits of $500 a month and the other for $2,000 a month. The one who has qualified for $500 is automatically qualified for $1,000 instead, which is equal to half of the larger earner’s benefit. When retirement comes, the lower earner gets a boost, so that the couple can retire with some security. This benefit is not available to same-sex couples.

• Spousal disability benefits provide for a spouse and dependents to qualify for benefits on a disabled worker’s earnings record in the same way as with retired workers. The benefit is not available to same-sex couples. Even the children of same-sex couples may be at risk.

• Survivors’ benefits allow a widow or widower to be eligible to claim his or her own Social Security benefit or an amount equal to the benefit for which their deceased spouse was eligible. If a retired couple qualifies for $500 for one person and $2,000 for the other, together their monthly benefit would be $2,500. Upon the death of the person get- ting $2,000, the survivor can receive $2,000 per month, instead of $500. This is true in all cases except when the survivor was in a same-sex partnership. In those instances, the survivor has to get by on $500 per month.

• Death benefits provide a modest benefit of $255 for burial and other expenses, but not if the survivor was in a same-sex partnership.

“The Social Security Equality Act will make a crucial difference to countless elderly LGBT people who are struggling to survive because their own government has denied them the Social Security benefits their spouses paid for and to which they are entitled,” Lorri L. Jean of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center said at the rally. “That’s not only wrong, it’s un-American.”

Takei, who attended with his husband, also spoke. The actor has served as an SSA celebrity spokesperson, filming a “Star Trek” spoof with Patty Duke to promote the government’s direct deposit program and appearing in other spots.

Sánchez’ bill, recorded as House Resolution 4609, has 94 original co-sponsors, including Democrats Tammy Baldwin and Gwen Moore of Wisconsin. The bill was referred to the House Ways and Means Committee, which is chaired by Republican Dave Camp of Michigan.

In 2010, the measure won endorsements from the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, SAGE, AIDS Community Action Foundation, PFLAG and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Those organizations also are supporting the 2012 version.