Seniors not factoring failing health into retirement plans

Doing other people's taxes can be quite a challenge — even more so if they don't know about it.

Just imagine trying to collect all those slips of paper, rooting through various investments, accounts and pensions, and dealing with the folks at the Canada Revenue Agency on behalf of two taxpayers who don't know what you're doing.

That was the situation I landed in last spring, doing the T1s and such for my grandparents, for whom I have power of attorney. Both are in their mid-90s — and, frankly, on the brink of incompetence — and have forgotten they put me in charge of their finances a few years ago. And it's a bit of a touchy subject, as money tends to be with some seniors.

So, for the time being, I'm in the interesting position of running their finances from the shadows, sneaking around, waving my POA at bankers, lawyers and an international assortment of pension services.

Let this be a lesson, say experts, to think about more than just dollars and cents when it comes to retirement planning. The bigger picture is much more complicated, and many near-retirees do not do enough to prepare for the possibility of failing physical or mental health.

"When people are planning their financial retirement, they need also to plan for health-care retirement," says Mark Handelman, a lawyer with Whaley Estate Litigation in Toronto.

"But it's not handled well most of the time," he adds, often because people are simply reluctant to discuss such things.

Handelman and other experts urge their clients to establish power of attorney for both finances and health care relatively early – partly because, as with wills, it's best to set up such documents well in advance of any dementia or similar issues setting in to prevent possible legal challenges.

If a trusted family member is looped in on financial or health-care conversations early on, it also increases the chances that the memory of their involvement will remain as age takes its toll.

Handelman says about 90 per cent of his clients arrive unprepared for the health issues of old age. He recalls one client — an elderly man who was born in Russia, lived in Germany and settled in Canada — who had not made his wishes clear to his family and was running out of time as age ate away at his language skills. He had already forgotten English, leaving him unable to talk with his children, and was en route to losing German, the only other language his wife knew.

According to the Alzheimer's Society of Canada, one out of every 13 Canadians has some form of dementia by age 65. By 85, it is one out of three.

"If you've got a POA trying to manage some elderly person's assets, it becomes a big issue if they've been managing it themselves until then," says Toronto-based financial planner Barbara Garbens.

"Then the POA has to step in, and you're dealing with a whole bunch of different variables like cash flow, rate of return and risk tolerance."

Seniors should meet frequently with their investment advisor and POA, says Garbens, "so that there's synergy about how to manage the estate." (And, presumably, fewer extended phone calls to Scottish pension officials...)

Dementia also greatly increases the chances that one will need to go into a long-term care facility. Almost half of Canadian seniors will live out the last three or four years of their lives in such a facility, according to Statistics Canada.

Saving more, and taking out long-term care insurance, can further future-proof one against failing health, says Garbens, though the number of firms offering such coverage is shrinking.

"It's not a profitable piece of the insurance business," she notes. "At some point in the future, there might not be long-term care insurance, and people will have to look for alternate ways to pay for it."

Many retirees do not set aside enough money or consider how other changes brought on by aging might affect their lives, agrees Cherith Cayford, a financial planner and educator with CMG Financial Education in B.C.

Many seniors dream of retiring to a little place in the country. But Cayford warns that the remote farmhouse or cottage that looked so appealing at age 65 could soon be a problem if someone loses their driver's licence or needs regular medical attention. Suddenly, being far away from public transport and other services is not so idyllic.

Cayford says she has had several clients who were painted into corners by their supposed dream homes.

"You're in the middle of nowhere, and there're no facilities around," she said. "Nobody wants to think they'll get to a stage that they're not able to drive. It comes as a shock to some people."

She says seniors should be more open to renting.

"Renting gives you a lot more flexibility and lets you use your equity elsewhere," Cayford said. "People get this fixation on buying and owning. And yes, it's ideal to go into retirement owning your home, but that's not to say you should always live in an owned property."

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