Forever Home – Far Away From Home

House for sale

Knowing retirement was coming up and fearing I wouldn’t be able to live on Social Security in the U.S., I started several years early and visited both Panama and Costa Rica as possible long-term locations. Even though I was looking at locations with mountains (since my dream included a babbling brook or quiet creek nearby), and a garden so I could fill my days with beautiful, aromatic flowers and herbs right at my fingertips – greenery that wasn’t readily available in Las Vegas, I had a friend in Florida who kept nudging me to come check out the state. He was not put off by my constant gripes that Florida had no mountains, I wasn’t really interested in sand in my shoes on a daily basis and they had hurricanes – not on my to-do list. Nevertheless, he persisted and so I visited a couple of times, with house-hunting at the top of the list. And what do you know? I liked the craftsman homes in the area, the greenery and the old-fashioned neighborhood feel.

I had it stuck in my mind that the thing to do was to cash out my 401K, use it to buy something outright so I’d have no rent or mortgage and then I could afford to live off my Social Security. And so I spent countless hours scouring Zillow and Realtor.com and a couple of others for something that I liked that I could afford. Not an easy task. I discovered that my meager 401K wasn’t going to get me much. I had found lots of places I could afford in Costa Rica but I had no way to check out the areas they were in or even see if the photos matched the reality. That scared me into going back again and again to look at properties in Florida.

I was constantly disappointed at my lack of affordability. The houses I could afford didn’t remotely match my dream and the amount of repairs that would be needed would require even more. I finally decided to stop attempting to make things happen and turn my attention elsewhere. I was sure that if it was meant to happen, it would.

And then one day, I got an email from my friend in Florida that one of his friends had come across a cute little place in her own search and had told him she was not going to buy it but that I should have a look at it online because it had the garden I said I wanted and it wasn’t terribly expensive. spring time gardens

I gasped when I saw the photos. There was a lovely garden and deck in the back and French doors leading from the master bedroom to a screened-in porch. Are you kidding? I wanted that house from the moment I saw the photos. My friend convinced me to fill out the online Quicken Loan information to see how much I could qualify for.

I’m not really sure what happened from there. One minute I was dreaming of a house with a garden and the next minute I had qualified for one, the lender had contacted me for more information and I was suddenly buying a house and would close on it in 6 weeks. Panic set in.

My goal of a stress-free, relaxed retirement turned into anxiety and sleepless nights as I downloaded document after document and started paying for all kinds of not-disclosed-up-front and unexpected expenses like an HOA application fee, an inspection fee, a property surveyPaperwork vortex fee, a title insurance fee, etc. I was running out of money and I’d been instructed not to borrow from the 401K until it was time for the down payment. I was drowning in paperwork (most of which reads like a foreign language and is exhausting to plow through) and my emotions vacillated all over the map – exhilaration, anxiety, despair, fright and excitement.

In the end, I drove across the United States to Florida and although I’m still adjusting to all the changes from my 42 years in Las Vegas, I think I’m going to be happy here. I love the back garden and have plans to transform it into a peaceful haven full of beautiful flowers. I already have the butterflies, birds and squirrels and I love them. But guess what? Gardening is expensive – just one more thing I didn’t anticipate.

When Retirement Loses Its Luster

Even though I’ve had a few niggling misgivings about retirement – having enough to get by, isolation, inactivity – the column of positives has outweighed those concerns. But they’re back and this time it’s my brother’s situation that has triggered unease.

If you were lucky enough to grow up with an older sibling that you always got along with and who always looked out for you, it’s disconcerting to see the tables turn in old age and brother and sisterknow that you love them enough to look after them but they won’t allow it. Not only will they not allow it, but they’ve made so many bad decisions along the way, that this is the result and the problems have multiplied. It’s hard not to replay some of those situations and constantly think, “What if…,” “If you’d only…,” or “Why can’t you…?”

My brother and I had a sort of bond against the world growing up. Our parents had a volatile relationship when my father was drinking (he eventually quit) and my brother, six years older, was quick to make sure I wasn’t being dragged into their fights – and by fights, I mean when my mother was yelling at my father (nothing physical). There was one incident shortly after he’d gone off to college when she was yelling at him and I’d slunk into my room and closed the door, turning up the television to avoid hearing them. Nevertheless, I heard my name being called. I stepped tentatively into the hallway to see them both standing in their bedroom doorway and my mother demanded of me, “Tell him. Tell him who loves you more.” What can you say to that? The moment they saw my face, the fight ended. I, however, relayed the incident to my brother and only found out years and years later that he called them and read them the riot act for putting me in the middle. He was my protector.

So yes, my brother and I have always had a bond. And now, it seems, when the tables have turned and he needs my help, I’m unable to pull my weight.

Over the years, his life took some hard turns and he lost sight of his dreams and goals and eventually gave up and retired. Not much of a money manager, when things would get rough, he’d abandon everything and just move. It never occurred to him that he was making his financial situation worse every time he did that and his money grew tighter and tighter. It’s finally reached the point where he has cancelled his Medicare because he needs the money for food. He hasn’t been able to afford any medical, dental or vision care and his health is beginning to deteriorate.

So here we are: me on the verge of retirement, hoping to spend some time taking him to dinner to make sure he eats decent meals and maybe catching a movie or two to get him out of his apartment. He, however, has decided he can’t even afford the low-rent Problems quoteapartment he’s in and is planning to abandon everything once again and head to Nicaragua so he can afford a decent apartment and food without having to ask for my assistance.

I help him out financially as often as I can and yet still feel guilty that I don’t just cash out my 401K and give him enough for the medical care I know he needs but is avoiding. I struggle with wanting to make his life easier but also protect my own. It’s made retirement scary for me. I want what’s best for both of us and I want him to live to be 100!

You’d think that, working in hospice, I’d be able to talk about death with him but I find that I can’t. The thought of losing him because he refuses to go to a doctor, makes me physically sick. More than anything, I want to be there to take care of him and I’m afraid part of his rationale for going to El Salvador is not only to save money but to keep me from watching his decline. I don’t know which is worse: being there to watch his decline or not being there and allowing him o cope by himself.

Neither choice is ideal but it’s made my view of the benefits of retirement slightly skewed because my future portends loss.

You Can Keep Your Advice to Yourself, Thank You

If I thought advice would cease once I turned in my notice at work, I was mistaken. Everybody, it seems, has expert advice on what I should do, where I should go, how I should maximize my Social Security, etc.

Here’s some of the well-meaning advice I’ve gotten.

On my 401K: Leave it alone and let it grow; pull it out and invest in an IRA; cash it out and buy a house so you won’t have a mortgage.

On all the free time: take up a hobby; travel (did they miss the part about my Social Security being about half of what I’m currently making?); get a part-time job (what was the point of retiring?); make a bucket list and then start going down the list; take a gardening class (that works really well on my apartment balcony); spend more time cooking; take up bicycling.

On extending my money: Become a vegetarian; take the bicycle to the store to save gas money; walk to the store; give up Starbucks (not a chance); move to a cheaper apartment (already on my exploration list); get all your doctor/vision/dental appointments done before you leave work so you don’t have to use Medicare; use as little air conditioning as possible (that’s a real winner in Vegas’s 116 degree heat); read only free online books; drop everything except basic cable; pay extra on all credit card payments (I actually agree with that one); cut out the monthly family dinner (not likely since it may be the only socialization I’ll have left).

stoptalking-300x225-300x225

I’m kind of tired of it. Ultimately, I’ll make the decisions that fit my personality and lifestyle and, right or wrong, I’ll either be fine or I’ll learn from the mistakes.

 

Panama – Part III

Boquete

Keep in mind that this little Panamanian adventure was taken when I was 63 years old, traveling alone and in search of a retirement location that would be more affordable when living off nothing but social security. The goal was to cash out my 401K, use it to purchase a small cottage with a backyard suited for establishing a lush garden to revel in on a daily basis and yet still be close to decent medical care.

So I drove from David, Panama to Boquete, where the instructions were to turn left just past the bank  and before the town square as I was descending into the valley. Now really, how could that go wrong? However, as you can see from the photo above, you can’t miss the fact that you’re traveling down into a valley. And here was the town square:

boquete-town-square-3-7-2016-2-50-58-pm

I quickly found my host’s house and settled into the one-room casita in the backyard – right next to a babbling brook that attracted all sorts of birds throughout my stay. It was an idyllic setting: perfect temperatures in the day – t-shirts, sweat pants and sneakers – but cold enough at night to sleep with the window open and a blanket pulled up under my chin. The morning bird calls would wake me and I’d make a cup of coffee and sit outside the front door and watch the resident creatures come to life and dip in and out of the backyard.

Cottage

The first thing I noticed was that the town seemed to be more expats than locals and that most of them made little or no effort to talk to the locals (at least that I could see). I didn’t like that. My stay overlapped a three-day celebration on the founding on Boquete and there were “parades” daily. I use that term loosely because the first one was a constant stream of men on horseback, interspersed by pickup trucks with women freely pouring booze into plastic cups for anyone who walked up to them as they passed by. I watched one horse, made to lift his knees and prance down the street, foaming at the mouth and no none seemed to mind a bit. These same horses paraded around in a giant square for the better part of 5 hours. I sort of wished we’d made the rider prance around like that for hours with no water and see how much he liked it. And then there was the public drunkenness. When I returned to my casita, the owner asked about my day and when I told her the public drunkenness concerned me, she responded, “Well, there is that.” Hmmm. How safe would a lone foreigner be in the city with drunken men routinely tottering around the streets?

I took a tour of a coffee plantation, enjoyed that and booked a tour that only had three of us and a guide, walking uphill in the forest in a light drizzle for the better part of two hours. They may have seen this tour as “an easy uphill walk” but as a senior, there were times when I thought that if we didn’t stop for breath, I wouldn’t have any left.

I used my time in Boquete to walk some of the back streets to see what the houses looked like and how the locals lived. The houses were dilapidated but the locals were friendly. I also asked my host lots of questions. I thought maybe I could make herbal and essential oil products from my company, Scentsibility, and sell them but her response was, “Who’s going to buy them?” When I said “hopefully the locals,” she responded, “They grow herbs in their backyards and wouldn’t have the money to buy products.” She suggested I check out the weekly open market to check out the competition and so I did.

boquete-tuesday-market

I was mostly struck by the fact that this was the height of entertainment for the locals. There were no department stores, no big grocery stores, no library that I could see, and television programs in Spanish. I started to realize that although this would be wonderful for about a month, then what? I found the local doctor’s office and decided I’d need to head to David or even back to Panama City for health care and that would certainly not be convenient.

I talked about buying a small house and my host discouraged it. She (as well as all the expats I talked to) said I should definitely rent for six months to a year before settling there. That would mean I’d be depleting my funds for a purchase. She added further fuel to my thoughts by asking me who would buy my little cottage if I decided after a year or so to leave? The locals couldn’t afford it and the expats tended to band together in gated communities on the outskirts of town so they wouldn’t buy it.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Boquete, I realized that I probably would not want to settle there. So I flew back to Panama City for my last night’s stay in the country and was picked up by my trusty driver, Sinar (see Part I).

So it appears I’m back to square one – where to go and how to live on social security.