The Famous LL Bean Guarantee

LL Bean is an east coast thing; their flagship store is in Freeport Maine, open 24/7. I’ve been to the store on the way to mid-coast Maine to visit my sister and brother-in-law, and if you love the outdoors, it’s a great place to browse. My family has owned a lot of LLBean gear and clothing over the years, from backpacks to snow pants to snow shoes to hiking poles to bike gear to warm winter boots and a lot of other things. The store is famous for their lifetime guarantee, that they’ll replace anything that fails, no matter how long you’ve had it, no questions asked.

I have an LLBean raincoat that has to be 20 years old. I love the coat: it’s long and keeps a sheeting rain off your pants, it has a hood, and with the zip out liner and roomy design, an added sweater underneath makes the coat a year-round wear. Just recently, I noticed that the waterproofing factor was pretty well gone. Now, waterproofing technology is IN the fabric. Back, then, waterproofing was ON the fabric — and subject, with time and the elements, to wearing away. I thought briefly about asking Bean to replace the coat, and then I said to myself, “Nah. The lifetime guarantee is for product failure, not longtime wear and tear. ” I ordered and paid for a new one, and donated the old.

Apparently I’m in the minority. Far too many customers were returning gear worn to the nubs and asking for a free replacement — sometimes asking replacement for an item bought so long ago it wasn’t demonstrably a Bean product at all. But given the company policy, the replacement was forthcoming.

No more. From now on, a replacement for product failure will happen during the first year, and then you have to have documentation that you actually bought the product at Bean.

I think it’s fair, and I’m surprised that they could keep the lifetime guarantee as long as they have.


Conscious Aging: Approaching the Retirement Community Decision Part One

I’m quite new to this question, so take my level of expertise with a grain of salt. But here’s how I’m approaching this possibility going forward:

What am I most hoping to gain in a CCRC, or facility with similar acronym?

If the goal is security and predictability no matter what turns my physical or cognitive health takes, that goal is probably an illusion. CCRC’s are a tricky business, with lots of pitfalls. To get in on any favorable terms, you need to be healthy and have stable finances. But how long and how intensively the facility will have to provide you and fellow residents with care is based on actuarial assumptions, and priced accordingly. Assumptions are just that: assumptions. If they are off by a little or a lot, places like this can and do go bankrupt. Short of that, a contract is only as good as the ability of the facility and its owner to deliver the goods. If the owners come to you and say, “Look, we can’t give you what we promised and what you thought you were paying for. We can give you X. Or, we can file for bankruptcy and you take your chances with other creditors”, you’re likely to accept a reduction in amenities and service as the best of two bad options. There are several points in the operation of a CCRC that are difficult financially, such as the shift from taking outside patients into skilled nursing at market rates — which happens in the early years of a facility — to filling all the beds with insiders who, contractually, get a much lower rate. Skilled nursing care isn’t going down in cost, it’s going up. How do the financial projections propose to pay for that shift?

As I said in an earlier post, CCRC’s and the like kind of facility are basically self-insured health care pools, with a very small N on which to base the projected shared burden. If  you have long term care insurance, you’ve already joined a pool with a much larger N. If not and you have the assets to self-insure, great. If neither of those are true, you probably don’t have the balance sheet to get into one of these places anyway.

Maybe we have to give up on the  notion that we can ever construct predictability and certainty into life, even as we age and feel more vulnerable and wish we could.

Tomorrow: What if the primary goal is social?

Conscious Aging: Deciding What You Really Want

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few days deciding what I really want, what I like to do, what my priorities are over the course of a day or a week or longer. Everything I’m coming up with supports the notion of staying where I am, at least for now.

I like to work out, and staving off the physical and cognitive slowing down that comes with aging for as long as I can is hugely important. Right now I have a pretty good workout room in my building, and three times a week I walk to the Y. I usually go mid-morning, when things aren’t as crowded as they are before and after work. The Y is near the International District, which means that the exercise floor is often populated with older Asian ladies and a few men. They carry on animated conversations in languages I can’t understand and seem to be thoroughly enjoying themselves, pushing and pulling on machines or stretching or balancing on one foot or jumping or hopping or whatever. For some reason their energy is infectious. They smile at me, even though we can’t converse. Recently I saw one tiny woman using a shoulder press machine in exactly the wrong way — she kept adding weight, rather than lessing it, and kept trying to push up. I was afraid she was going to hurt herself. I went over, and with hand gestures, motioned that I’d like to help her. I showed her how to back the weight off instead of putting more on, and then when she had the weight right, I put my hands under her elbows so she wouldn’t bring her arms down past 90 degrees. She looked delighted, and conveyed her appreciation with hand gestures and a twinkling smile. I was delighted too. It’s nice to be able to help someone.

I like to eat out. I think I might do that less in a place where two or three meals a day are including in the monthly fee. If the food is paid for, I might feel I ought to eat it. I got very tired of the food at the airport hotel in Panama City when Minga and I stayed there for five days. I might be very tired of the food in a place after five weeks or five months or five years.

I like to read, write my blog, have time with my grandchildren, and go to a movie or exhibit or lecture with a friend. I think if I rachet up my social outreach just a bit, I can muster up a few more people to do things with — even if my friend Louise moves into a retirement community that is different from any of the ones I’m looking at. I can also travel more to see friends, which I did to some extent over the last couple of years around book parties and enjoyed immensely.

Very helpful in all of this rumination was Sara and Matt’s assurance that despite their busy lives, if something untoward happens to me and I can’t make decisions myself, they will cope and not mind doing it. I was very glad for that, and think I have wonderful grown kids. 🙂

Conscious Aging: Looking at the Financials

Continuing care communities are basically self-funded health insurance pools, subject to all the risks involved: a relatively small base of people paying into the pool, the demographic reality that younger, healthier people may join for the activities and future assurance of care, but those same residents will age and perhaps live longer than actuarially predicted. Established facilities will face future competition from newer facilities, affecting the critical factor of occupancy rate. Outside factors — like the catastrophic water main break that occurred during the building phase of the facility I was looking at, which delayed construction and then rent-up — may severely strain capital reserves.

I was looking at a retirement community first from the standpoint of whether I’d like to live there, and only secondarily from the standpoint of whether the business model held up. Now I know I need to reverse what’s in the foreground and what’s in the background. I need to look at the biz model first, and then the amenities.

Here’s a beginning resource on how to do that:

“So how do you delve into a retirement community’s finances before plunking down a hefty deposit? Two industry groups have come up with dozens of questions to ask. CARF International, which accredits CCRCs, has a free “Consumer Guide to Understanding Financial Performance and Reporting in CCRCs.” (It is available on The American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging offers “The Continuing Care Retirement Community: A Guidebook for Consumers.” (Go to, click on “Choosing a Provider,” “Continuing Care Retirement Communities,” and then “Consumer Guide.“)”

This quote is from a Wall Street Journal article by Kelly Greene entitle “Continuing Care Retirement Communities: Weighing the Risk”. WSJ is protected by a paywall, which means you can’t read the article unless you subscribe. I was able to gain access when the article came up on a Google search of “financial risk in continuing care communities”. If you can’t read this article, a number of other good ones that are not paywall protected do appear in the search.

The most important thing is to go beyond the glossy annual report that the facility may put in your welcome packet, and ask for the most recent financials. Read them, including the footnotes, where all the juicy bits are likely to be hidden. If you don’t feel capable of deciphering the financials, it’s worth paying an accountant or financial advisor to do it for you.

We basically face an elder care crisis in this country. People don’t save enough to self-fund for as long as we may need to. We haven’t decided how much health care should be given in the last quarter of life, and at what relative cost, and who should pay for it. We face a shortage of caregivers.

Fancy retirement communities are a little like putting lipstick on a pig, and only for that very small segment of the population who can afford them. Such facilities may make the journey into old age seem softer and more manageable, but they don’t get us anywhere near resolving the basic problems.

“Class Passing”

Another name for “class passing” is “code shifting”. We saw President Obama do it when he addressed a primarily black audience at the memorial service for those killed at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston in 2015. The rhythm of his language shifted ever so slightly, but enough. He led the group in singing Amazing Grace, something that fits perfectly with Black Church worship but would be unthinkable, for example, with the primarily white affluent crowd at the Roman Catholic Al Smith Charity dinner.

The Guardian has a really interesting piece about how those of us who’ve moved from one class to a higher one learn the norms and language of our new world. My father’s family were farmers; my grandfather lost his farm during the Depression. My father had two years of college but had to drop out because he ran out of money. His siblings were clearly working class: two small farmers, one who did shift work in a defense plant, and my Aunt Pauline who ran a small general store after the premature death of her school bus driver husband Max. My mother’s family were more financially successful, at least initially — grandfather Philip Halpin owned an elevator company that rivaled Otis. But he lost the business during the Depression because of his alcoholism, referred to by the Irish Catholic euphemism “pop’s spells.” The family fortunes declined precipitously. But my mother’s social class aspirations did not. As a young married woman, she aligned herself through the Women’s Club with ladies whose lives represented where she wanted to be, not necessarily where she and my father were. She taught us the language of middle class life. We never, like our New Jersey cousins, said things like, “How are you’s doing?” Actually, it came out more like, “Hower yiz doin’?” My smart as a whip Cousin Adrienne, who commuted to sophisticated New York to her office job at Mobil, talked like that even into adulthood. My sisters and I never did.

Jerry had a PhD when I married him, and he pulled me along to that level of academic achievement. We had a successful if small financial planning business, and now I am well and truly in a different class from the one in which I grew up. How did I learn the language and norms? I think I was less conscious of modeling than my mother was, although perhaps I didn’t need to be because she’d already walked that path and brought us along. I built my upper class identity along the lines of a successful business woman, a language with which I was readily comfortable. When I joined the tony Genesee Valley Club after Jerry died, I did so as a community business leader, not as a member of old Rochester gliterati — could never have convinced anyone I was that in any case. As chair of the board of the Women’s Foundation I crossed paths with old Rochester money, and quickly crossed swords with their expectation that things would be decided by them outside the meeting, then put into practice by me. I prevailed, but my personal relationships with those board members did not endure — I like to think I walked away first, not because I didn’t understand what they were asking me to do, but because I found the clubbiness and closed circle stifling.

Obviously lots to think about here, and this article intrigued me. How about you? Have you moved up a notch or two — or down? How have you mastered the language and norms of where you are now?

Sugar High of Tax Cuts

The benefit of the tax bill that Republicans pushed through on a party line vote is heavily weighted toward those who are already rich, but there are crumbs for the ordinary voter — and approval for the bill seems to be ticking up on that basis.

It’s the story of Minga and her road. The previous president of Panama, Martinelli, was demonstrably corrupt and looted millions of dollars from the treasury. But he paved the road in front of Minga’s house, something no president had bothered with before. No matter how vociferously the press claimed good riddance to a corrupt leader, Minga would respond, “But he paved my road.” She approved of him, and was sorry to see him go.

What the tax bill does, in a larger sense, is starve the federal government of revenue. What difference does that make? This, from the Washington Post’s Health 202:

The CDC is dramatically cutting back its epidemic prevention activities in 39 out of 49 countries because money is running out, government officials said yesterday. Four years ago, in response to the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, Congress approved a one-time, five-year emergency package to train frontline workers and strengthen laboratory and emergency-response systems. But in September 2019, CDC will run out of the $600 million it was awarded, and the Trump administration has not budgeted additional resources, Lena reports.”

Because global travel has increased exponentially, the world is far more vulnerable to epidemics of all kinds, from the familiar but lethal influenza to the more exotic Ebola and other viruses. We are one plane flight, one infected passenger, away from a health crisis.

Why did the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress choose to drain the federal coffers of money for things like global prevention of epidemics? So that Trump could brag to his Mar A Lago guests that he’d just made them a lot richer.

There’s a Panama parallel there too. One of the biggest recent outbreaks of dengue fever happened in Betania, an upper class neighborhood of Panama City. Mosquitoes don’t know, or care, about giving the rich a pass on lethal diseases.

I guess we should all enjoy the sugar high of having a bit more money in our pockets while we have it, without second thoughts for our corrupt president. I guess.

Giving Credit Where Due: Janet Yellin

Trump is not a gracious man — he takes credit for any good news, to the point of inventing good news where the facts belie. He’s pugnacious in claiming credit for the booming economy, intent on erasing President Obama’s eight years in office, his economic team’s deft handling of the 2008 financial crisis, and the slow but steady recovery that ensued.

So which man deserves more credit for what’s happening in the economy now? In the opinion of Charles Lane, opinion writer for the Washington Post and frequent guest on Fox news, neither. Credit in large measure is due Janet Yellin, who completes her term as Chair of the Federal Reserve.

Most of us have only a vague idea what the Fed actually does. Suffice to say that Yellin’s management of interest rates was right on target, and had more to do with our currently booming economy than anything either President Obama or Trump did.

Trump refused to reappoint her, because she served under President Obama. Not surprising — loyalty counts with Trump, not competence.

But here’s a shout out for Chairman Yellin. Kudos on a job well done.

Panama 2018 Day 12: Explaining Inequality to Children

Gloria’s grandchildren are nothing if not observant.

Abuela, why does Tia Pamela have peanut butter, and we don’t? Why does Tia Pamela have warm water to bathe in? Why does Tia Pamela have a big bottle of cooking oil, and you have a small one and we have more people in our family to cook for?”

“Abuela, who is Tia Pamela to you? If we call her Tia, why does she have very white skin and we all have dark skin? Why isn’t she like us?”

“Abuela, why doesn’t Tia Pamela wash dishes?

The literal answers are that any prepared food, like peanut butter, is far too expensive for them to buy. They have cold water not so much because of the initial cost of a water heater and installation, but because of the ongoing cost of electricity to heat the water.  When Gloria showered the children here, they certainly liked the warm water. It’s just that their parents can’t afford to provide it for them. Villagers can’t buy in quantity, the larger more economical sizes of things like cooking oil, because a big jug is too expensive in the moment, even if it might be more cost effective over a week’s worth of cooking. And they don’t buy olive oil in any case, even though they know it’s more healthy, but rather a cheaper vegetable oil.

Gloria told them I do wash dishes in my apartment — actually, I load the dishwasher — but not here because I am on vacation. “On vacation” is an utterly foreign concept to these little ones. They know “school vacation”, but that doesn’t involve going anywhere or leading any different kind of life, and it certainly doesn’t include someone to wash their dishes.

Gloria told them she is my friend — our preciously built relationship of “amigas para siempre”, women friends forever — but that when I am here I pay her to help me so that I can relax. Their eyes widened. They had no idea.

The harder question, the connection Gloria tries to reframe, is their associating white skin with privilege. The question is complicated by the fact that in Panama, most upper class Panamanians with privilege also have light skin. The question is also complicated by the fact that associating white skin with privilege is largely true, in our culture as well as theirs.

Gloria tells them what I told her, when we first met and she was struggling with her role as a servant and with her question of why God’s plan always placed her family at the bottom rung of the economic ladder. “In the eyes of God we are all equal. God loves us not because of our skin color, but because of what is in our hearts.

Ojala que sea asi. I wish it to be true.

These are such hard conversations.

Where Do Americans Get Affordable Healthcare?

India, among other places.

This article about Americans without health care seeking affordable treatment in India reminds me of the two-tiered health care system in Panama. For those who can pay, there are private hospitals with many U.S. trained physicians providing excellent care. For those who can’t, there is the public system — where Minga is receiving dialysis. The two systems are worlds apart.

Panama has some influx of Americans looking for cheaper surgeries, but nothing like India, or Dubai — which is also making a big pitch for this market.

We actually have three broad swathes of people needing care in the U.S.: those who have health care coverage and get high quality albeit expensive treatment, those who can pay to go abroad to India or other places, and those who have neither option and simply die of what ails them.

Given that we all get sick or injured and need care at some point, it feels as if we should be able to do better than this.

The issue in India is whether the country uses the revenue from incoming foreign patients to improve the public system where the vast majority of Indians are treated. My guess is probably not.

Conscious Aging: Paul Ryan’s Cuts

Now that Ryan and McConnell have forced through the Heritage Foundation tax plan, they’ve set their sights on cuts to Medicare and Social Security.

The people described in this article are likely, in large measure, Trump voters — or at least Republicans. Turfed out of their pensions and their middle class paying jobs, they’re now living on Social Security and minimum wage jobs, working well into their 70’s.

Trying to imagine their lives without Social Security and Medicare, I’m wondering why they don’t think of that when they vote Republican.