Monday, December 30, 2013

Forgiving Germany

Maybe it started when I chose to take German in the 7th grade. French or Spanish hadn’t seemed like languages that would roll off my tongue. Yet German did.  Back then, we learned the old written text and “high German.”  It seemed to plug into my sensibility. Later I came to think something about German grammatical orderliness tied into my being.

My family was Jewish, but my parents didn't participate in Jewish culture or religion. It was almost as if they went out of their way to avoid it. My father was an avowed atheist. His mother once informed me that there could be no God if there was a Hitler. We were Americans – we celebrated Christmas - that was all I really knew and religion wast part of our life.
When I first learned about Nazi Germany, maybe around age 8 or 9, I remember being frightened. We were in the middle of the cold war . What would I do if the same thing happened in the U.S.?   Why would I have to die for being "Jewish" when it meant nothing to me? 

By the time I headed off to college, that first pang of fear had grown to how could Nazi Germany have happened. How could that go on in a civilized society?  I majored in twentieth century European history to find out.  After lots of reading, the only thing that really struck me was that those who lived near the death camps and said they didn't know, were lying. Apparently it's impossible to deny the smell of burning flesh.  But I never sated my need to understand how people could do that - how so many people could sit by and watch that happen. Words like "genocide" weren't in my vocabulary then.

My Daughter and I in Dresden
Fast forward from the 1970s - until two years ago, when my daughter moved to Berlin for a job.  I really didn't want to go to Germany but I wanted to see her and there was also the gnawing hope that I could finally get a chance to speak my high school German.

When I first visited Germany last Spring, I found I could barely leave my daughter's apartment. I had glimpses or memories of what had occurred. The phrase “blood running in the streets,” ran constantly though my mind. My internal mental imagery was haunting. I found myself hating and angry, and frightened.

At any use of the word Jew, even in a street sign, or countless placards or exhibits, I felt I was being served up insufficient versions of history or apologies.  The bigger picture of Nazi aggression and oppression - beyond Jewish people - it didn't even make it onto my emotional grid during that visit. 

Walter Rathenau

Instead, I memorialized a quote by German Industrialist Walter Rathenau, which was posted in the Jewish Museum.  It resonated with me, because I had had similar experiences in my own life. Mr. Rathenau had served in an elite military regiment  in 1890 and became an influential person in German social and political life, until he was gunned down by Jew haters in the early 1920s. His quote:

In the youth of every German Jew there is a painful moment he will remember all of his life; the moment when he becomes fully aware that he was born into the world as a second class citizen and that no amount of virtue or public service can lift him out of that condition.”

When my daughter initially announced she was moving to Berlin, I gave a hesitant endorsement. In response, she told me harshly that this was my “baggage.”  Had she learned nothing about the world in high school? It boggled my mind that she could describe what happened in Germany as “my baggage?”  I thought her ignorance stunning. 

My first trip to Germany was memorable because my daughter and I shared some wonderful adventures, including a lovely day bike riding in Potsdam.  And I saw she was happy at work and in her life. But I didn’t plan to return. 
Schloss Charlottenburg Weinachtmarkt

But she remains in Berlin, which she loves, save for the city's mostly gloomy skies. And I find myself here again, now at Christmas time. On this visit – amid Weinachtmarkts and winter cold, I find myself warming up. I take more risks speaking the language, interacting with people and letting Germany in.

Schloss Charlottenburg

This trip, I see things differently despite myself.

As we drive from Berlin to Dresden, my daughter kindly reprimands me: "So many in your generation won’t give Germany a chance. Why can’t you just see that not everyone and everything here   is bad?  Not everyone here now can feel personally responsible forever for what happened in Nazi Germany!”

The Elbe Between Alt and Neu Dresden
With her words, I search for words and my resistance gradually ebbs. I shift in my seat and look out the window at the green rolling hills punctuated by windmills.  It is very peaceful.

I let my thoughts subside and feel myself breathe differently with this new thought.  My daughter is right. I have been so stuck in my cement thinking that everything is ugly about Germany. But it is not.

Weihnachtmarkt in Dresden

As we drive into Dresden I see the scars of Russian occupation and the war. The Elbe and the remnants of a grander culture remain beautiful.  How much Hitler’s lunacy and a misguided nation has cost this land. What an awful legacy this new generation has inherited.  For the first time I feel compassion for Germany and for Germans. This is a new experience.

I know from personal experience how challenging it can be to make a dent in how people think or what goes on in the world. How would I answer for a nation's history? Many things in my own country boggle my mind. And yet we all keep moving and time indeed marches on. 
The entry- Schloss Charlottenburg

By making Germany her home, my daughter has given me a great gift. I see I have to expand my capacity to forgive and move on. Realizing this in a foreign land and speaking a foreign language I love has made this lesson quite special. Who would have thought that I learned German all those years ago for this beneficence now?

My daughter is planning to make Berlin her home for some time to come - despite the often gray skies that plague Berlin.  She attributes the state of affairs to a micro-weather system that shrouds Berlin.  
I do hope it loosens its grip  and sunshine streams in soon. Maybe it's not God's punishment after all.  

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Paving Paradise…..for a Soccer Field?

Field Before Hurricane Sandy
The first anniversary of Hurricane Sandy has just come and gone. The wide open field next to our condo suffered. Over twenty 100 year old trees came down. They flanked the field where I walked my dog each morning and in an instant the field was naked, exposed, without them.  I had secretly named them “sentries” because they ringed an open field – as if guarding it from the wild brush and wetlands that lay beyond.

Over the past year, my dog and I got used to the increased eastern morning light that was left in the wake of Sandy. We adapted to the increased noise from the nearby heavily trafficked road.  The debris was cleared and new brush and grassy knolls remained.
In The Wake of Sandy

At least until a week ago.  Then the surveyors and landscapers began walking the field, and taking measurements. I saw some trees and evergreens and felt excited that there would be replanted. Instead,  two days ago, several majestic oaks and maples and pines which had survived Sandy, met their next predator. The Village of Briarcliff Manor which deemed a new soccer field more important than several mighty old trees who’d survived Sandy. They were felled in an afternoon – to make way for a “level field” for soccer.

Gone is the serenity of a natural state, replaced by some village planner’s idea of natural landscape. A “level” field ringed by shrubs and manicured plantings, instead of natural brush and gentle slopes and knolls.  Gone too is my cat Cody who happened to wander out that day and must’ve encountered the earth moving and the upheaval of it all.  I could only think of Eddie Murphy as Dr. Doolittle – trying to save the habitat for all the animals who once called the trees and forest and brush their home. Only this is no movie; this is my neighborhood.

The Latest Carnage
In my youth Joni Mitchell sang of paving  paradise to put up a parking lot. She was ahead of her time. Only now it is more than parking lots that are assaulting our lives. We have plenty of soccer fields, school fields and organized athletics. How much natural land remains for us to traverse and feel at peace and at one with the earth?

I miss my morning sentries –and with this latest assault, I feel the pain of the land that we continue to distort for ends that I don't see as "improvements." To me, it only moves us further from nature, spirit and grace of God.  And I'm not particularly religious.

With this latest upheaval I am determined to move away soon. I don’t want to live in a community where an administrative edict to serve a few, trumps Mother Nature. I miss the land as it was and I miss my cat who could no longer navigate the landscape he’d known for 5 years. 

Some things we can’t help – like Hurricane Sandy. But some things we can.  Moving our kids into ever constant sports, afterschool activities , celebrity acquisitive money grubbing culture – well to me it makes no sense.  When I was a kid – we just played in the yard and it was lots of fun. Not everything had to be organized, cultivated or manicured.

When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Long Term Care Planning: Lessons from my Dad

Medicare is health insurance for individuals age 65 and over who are entitled to Social Security retirement benefits (or have received Social Security disability benefits for two years.) When Medicare was enacted in 1965, the thinking was that working people would “pay in” during their earning years, so that illness in their later years wouldn’t eat up their life savings. 

And yet now, almost 50 years after its enactment, Medicare is not the panacea many had hoped. Why not?

Because Medicare doesn’t cover long term care which is what you need with Alzheimer's or Dementia. Medicare only provides coverage for acute care and skilled care.  According to “America’s Long Term Care Crisis,” in July’s Trusts & Estates Magazine,  13% of the population is now over age 65, and 1.8% of these  folks (5.7 million) are over 85. More than half of those over 85 need assistance with daily living and assistance is expensive

With home care cost now running $55,000-$75,000/year, and care in a nursing home costing up to $180,000/year, how does the unaffordability of long term care play out in human terms?

My Dad: A Case Study

My Dad worked for one company for 45 years. Between his pension, social security and lifetime medical coverage (lucky guy!) he could afford a simple life on about $40,000/year. But by his 85th birthday, after a series of fender benders and stairway falls,  Parkinson’s and Dementia  got the better of him.  My siblings and I forced him to surrender his car and figured we’d move him to an apartment with an aide in his neighborhood.

But my Dad vetoed the new ground floor apartments, mostly because he couldn’t handle the change and new floor plans.  This is a very big deal with Dementia. Without a car, and with increasing phone calls to bring him food, we took him to my home until we could formulate Plan B.

For two weeks, as I explored renting a house with him, getting an aide and senior living, my 20 year old daughter babysat him.  He had difficulty navigating our home and at night he plopped into whatever bed he happened upon. The full reality of his illness hit us and we now knew first hand how tough basic living had become for him.

 Within a few weeks, we felt “lucky” to have him safely ensconced in a senior living facility, for about $6,000/month. Since the layout was the same as his former apartment,  he got the hang of it quickly. In his lucid moments, he was enraged that his new digs were about a third the size and 4x the cost. He cursed me and thought me a lunatic to have agreed to such a thing. Mercifully, logical discussions about these subjects became less frequent as his disease progressed.

But even at this juncture,  the economic reality of my Dad’s situation proved quite sobering for his children. None of the four of us had had one employer for more than 10 years, let alone 40. Already in our 50s, our lives reflected the times we live in: several jobs, job losses, periods of unemployment; retirement benefits and IRAs cobbled together between mortgages and kids’ college education.  What would await us when we need long term care?

After about a year in “senior living,” my Dad took a fall and was given the “do not return” card from the facility.  Fortunately, because he was in the hospital for at least three days, and admitted to a rehab-nursing home with skilled care within 30 days after that, he was covered by Medicare in full, for the first 20 days, and then was required to pay a daily co-pay of $148/day for days 21 through 100. After Day 100, there is no coverage unless another illness crops up.  After 100 days in skilled care, then what?

Long Term Care Isn’t Covered by Medicare

Folks like my Dad who lived long enough to be debilitated by Dementia and Parkinson’s require care, but not the “skilled” care needed to secure Medicare coverage.   The rules regarding how much is covered for home care benefits etc., is limited, because the definition of medical necessity is limited.  So what happens next? 

In my Dad’s case, he couldn’t tend to his daily needs because he couldn’t walk, bathe himself or go to the bathroom on his own. He didn’t so much require “medical” or “skilled” care, but rather “custodial” care. And that’s not covered by Medicare.
Out of options, we felt fortunate to have found a clean safe nursing home where the monthly bill climbed to $12,000/month instead of the $6,000/month in senior living. 
By that point we had begun the 18 month process of securing Veterans’ Benefits for him (he was a WWII veteran), which were later paid retroactively from the date of application. With these new funds, we managed to negotiate a more affordable rate with the nursing home. His monthly income was too low to afford the place, but rendered him ineligible for Medicaid. A real tough "Catch 22."

It really made us wonder who has $12,000/month to pay for care! And we’re not talking about Ritz-Carlton care here. We’re talking about a nursing home where residents are in various states of dementia, disability and ability to care for themselves.   In this difficult environment, the care, health and well-being of the residents essentially depends on the caring kindness of very low paid workers.

Neither Medicare nor the new Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 covers care for long term chronic care. With Alzheimer’s, dementia and similar ailments on the rise for seniors, the promise of Medicare is a false one.  When a person runs out of money and needs care, not covered by Medicare, your next “failsafe” is Medicaid. Medicaid is another federal system, run at the state level, with rules, regulations, and hurdles. It is another subject for another day.

My Personal Long Term Care Plan

 After experiencing the process of watching my father move out of his home and move into the “system,” it became quite clear that unless I had a big lottery winning, there’s likely no way I’ll be able to afford long term care.

An apt analogy is college costs: When I was younger, college cost $5000 a year at a top school. Forty years later it costs $60,000/year.  If nursing homes cost $180,000/year now – there is no hope for me – even if I don’t need that “greener pasture” for another 20 years.

My Long Term Care Plan
 Instead I came up with my own plan. 

I'm holding onto a small ranch house in Florida with three bedrooms and two baths, all on one level, close to the beach and where handicapped accessibility is commonplace.  There will be enough room for me, an aide and a visiting child. And the sunshine will feel good, no matter my mental capacity. 

And with a little luck, my mortgage will be paid off and it will cost far less than $180,000/year.