What price peace of mind?

by mymothersbrain

When you have a parent who is slowly dying, you face long-term grief and its toll on a daily basis. But between the busyness and the sadness you can’t help considering the roll of the biological dice, as well. My parents have both reached 80, and my mom is declining a bit every day. My father has slowed down considerably, but is in fairly good health and stays very active. Longevity could be in the cards for me, but will I age like my father, or my mother? Will I get lost one day while driving in my car, or suddenly forget who my husband is? The idea terrifies me. And no, in this case, I don’t really want to know the odds according to science. Frankly, I’d rather not think about it at all.

When I do think about it, the temptation is to believe that I will be able to simply walk into an ocean or off a cliff rather than face the difficult road I’ve watched so many people walk. And I know others who feel the same way. But there must be something of the practical I inherited from my forebears, because I finally did something I’ve been considering for a while.

My mother-in-law was caregiver to her own mother, who lived out her final years with Alzheimer’s in residential care. Surely, my mother-in-law had thoughts similar to my own, because one day, out of the blue, she told my husband and me that she’d bought a long-term care policy, just in case. Though I also remember her saying she felt sure scientists would soon find a way to cure the disease that was erasing her mother; even if she should ever come down with it, there was hope her life would end differently. When she was diagnosed with irreversible dementia — normal pressure hydrocephalus for sure, and maybe Alzheimer’s, as well — that long term care policy was suddenly very valuable. For five years, it would pay about $3,000 a month toward her care.

About a year ago, during a visit to our insurance agent’s office, my husband and I brought up the issue of long-term care policies for ourselves. We got a quote. We discussed it. We let it go. Periodically, we would bring it up, but not act on the idea one way or the other. Our biggest obstacle — besides this being another monthly bill to pay — was the idea of putting money into a fund that we might never use. It’s a gamble of statistics, after all. Will we live long enough to need this, or will we die in a car crash? But a rider that would transform this into a lump sum we could will someone should we not use it made the cost prohibitive. Then, earlier this year, my mother-in-law’s policy finally ran out. Could she have paid all those expenses on her own? It’s possible; she had a good pension and savings. But for those five years, my husband was able to focus on his mom and her needs rather than whether she could afford the care she was receiving. Now, she is nearing the end of her life. Every time I see her, I consider myself fortunate; every visit could be our last.

I don’t know what prompted us, finally, to apply for a policy of our own. The fact that it worked so well for my mother-in-law probably had something to do with it. But I think, too, it had something to do with control. In which parts of this journey do I have a say? Maybe the way to look at this insurance would be to simply think of it as peace of mind. Or to look at it the way I view other money I can never get back — my health club membership, for instance. I figure that expense and the time I spend there are shoring up my future health.

So, I researched two different insurance carriers. We applied. It was decidedly not fun. It tried my patience. But the process we went through might help others who are considering doing the same thing. So here is what I learned:

  • This one’s a given: The younger and healthier you are when you buy it, the less expensive it will be. One agent told me that when you turn 50, the rates jump significantly. That makes sense, but ask your agent what policies are available to you.
  • The applications are an invasion of your privacy. The carrier we went with conducted a cheek swab to test for smoking, AIDS, and other possible conditions. I had second thoughts because the other carrier I researched did not require a cheek swab. Some conditions will disqualify you altogether while others may raise your rates. (And no, it’s not fair at all. Why should those who most need this help be the ones disqualified? It boggles my mind.)
  • One thing I meant to ask and did not: What happens to our privacy should the swab be positive for an illness? Definitely, ask! And let me know what you learn.
  • We completed a medical questionnaire with our agent, then with a third party company contracted by the carrier. That third party company contacted our doctors for medical records. I had requested to answer the questionnaire after 5 p.m. so as not to interrupt my work day. Naturally they called me at 9 in the morning, so I told them to read the notes my agent sent regarding appropriate times to call. They asked if my husband would be doing the questionnaire right after me. “Did you not get a number for him?” I asked. “Read the notes our agent sent you.” They sent me a letter in which they address me by my husband’s last name and not my own. Did I mention the process tried my patience?
  • If  you and your spouse purchase a policy together, you may qualify for a discount. We did, and our combined premiums add up to about $100 per month.
  • The policy doesn’t just cover long term care at the end of your life; it can cover expenses should you have an illness or medical event that requires shorter terms of care. Again, ask about it.
  • Most policies have a waiting period during which you’re responsible for your own bills before they begin to pay. Our policy has a 90-day period, though by paying a higher premium we could have brought that down. We did not purchase an inflation rider that would have increased the payout every year. That would have made the policy unaffordable for us, though it would have protected our other financial assets.

I realize that people are struggling financially; these are hard times. More and more of us can’t afford basic health insurance, let alone something that might feel like a luxury, a long-term care policy for instance. But for those of us who have seen the devastating effects of disease in our families, it’s something to consider.