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Inside the Brown Bag

The Unmentionables

By Peg Brown

No—I don’t mean women’s lingerie—although the white cotton bras we grew up with should probably never be mentioned again—or my grandmother’s flesh colored corset that had as many laces as Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara’s…

What I do mean are all the topics that were not part of polite family conversation.

Like money. Two years ago, a Wall Street Journal Article, entitled “How I learned to Talk About Money,” (Sunday, March 2, 2014), caught my eye—because, in truth, this was not something that anyone really discussed while I was growing up. Of course, there were random comments such as, “that’s too expensive,” or “we can’t afford that right now,” or, “we’re not members of the 400 you know.” (This last reference was a carryover phrase from the Gilded Age of the Carnegies’ and Rockefellers’ book of the wealthiest of their era. As the article comments, “Talking about money is one of the last great social taboos, seen as gauche, arrogant, cringe-worthy and, worst of all, boring.”

My grandparents, married in the early 1920s, certainly never discussed their net wealth, tax situation or estate plans (including another unmentionable—THE WILL). There was no mention of long-term care health insurance, or questions centered on, would they outlive their assets? I cannot even imagine what their reaction would be today to the costs of assisted living or nursing homes, which, trust me, run between $3,500 and $10,000 a month. (Remember that it wasn’t until 1935 that Social Security legislation provided the opportunity for some relief from the catastrophic effects of large, unexpected hospital and doctors’ bills.) I never ever remember mention of the stock market, Dow Jones industrial average or the NASDAQ. Their children, my parents, lived through the depression and even though the post-World War II economy boomed, they too were pretty tight lipped about money. It’s only in the story telling of their later years that we learned that they did not have credit cards, that they bought occasionally “on-time” (that is made monthly payments that were manually recorded in little ledgers), or that they bought their first house for $7,500 and had trouble meeting the $50 monthly mortgage payment.

I don’t ever remember having a family meeting over financial issues.—I think that only really happened on the “Brady Bunch” when Michael and Carol Brady gathered the entire family for a discussion when difficult issues, including money, arose. In hindsight that show was probably about as realistic as imagining that our family would every visit Disney Land. I do remember one financial discussion—during my senior year I had received a New York State Scholarship for college. In the 1960s, those scholarships were not “portable,” that is, they had to be used at a college within New York. I had chosen to attend a college in Pennsylvania, which, to make financial matters worse, was private. Although I now know my parents cleaned out their entire bank account to assist with that tuition every semester, I don’t ever remember them letting me know how that expense was adversely affecting their lives—or how it might affect their vacation, spending or retirement plans. (They did draw the line at graduate school—that was on my own—I had to borrow a whole $1,500 to augment my assistantship during my Master’s degree study.)

There were certainly other unmentionable topics—besides sex, that is. Health was another subject that was avoided. No one ever talked about the Big C—cancer. In the cases of cancers related to women, for example, there were no television infomercials about prevention, self-detection, optional treatments or genetic testing. There were no “rallys for the cure,” looped pink ribbons on lapels or “pink outs” at major sporting events. Perhaps a true family story would emphasize how closeted these topics were. When my grandmother was in her 70s, she was hospitalized with what I now suspect was a reoccurrence of cancer. When the doctor asked my father when his mother had had her breast removed, my father was completely surprised. I remember grandma lying on her couch recovering from major surgery—several times. Not even her son knew what the surgery had been for.

I also don’t remember family discussions about what would happen to grandma and grandpa when they could no longer care for themselves. In truth, for many generations, extended families lived in nearby towns—or at least near-by states. And, life expectancy was shorter. The percentage of individuals living into their 80s was small. Today, Hallmark markets birthday cards for those turning 100. It is not unusual for children in their 70s to be caring not only for grandchildren, but for their aging parents as well.

Newspapers, magazines, and television commercials proliferate, advertising living communities for aging adults. Nursing homes are expanding, in-home care agencies are growing and the main question for many is “how are we going to pay for this?” For those of my generation who have navigated the independent living, assisted living and nursing home industries, the answers can be startling. The bottom line—we should all aspire to die poor because almost every asset that is still in our possession will be expended for our long-term care. The topics that were unmentionable must now be addressed directly. How and when will you prepare for your own care? When will you turn over your assets to your children, or charity, or establish a trust that will allow you to distribute your wealth as you wish—not as your health care provider requires. It’s a complicated, frustrating and potentially expensive exercise. But, if in your family, this issue in particular continues to be an “unmentionable” and you or your children expect some assets to pass to the next generation, it’s a topic that should be put to a family meeting.