Ten days ago a wonderful Westchester resident shot himself because he ran out of money.
Financially savvy and well-to-do for most of his life, he had simply not considered the longevity Americans now face. His generation had rarely seen people survive past their 70s, but both he and his wife had reached their 90s and their money had run out.
Able-bodied, to the point of driving to the gym three times a week at the age of 95, he was adamant about never moving out of the home he had built and lived in for decades.
His suicide letter stated simply: “I see no alternative.”
He was survived by his 92-year-old wife. She was wheelchair-bound and paralyzed on one side after suffering a stroke four years previously. They had no blood relatives. When it was found that, despite living in a beautiful home, they only had $300 in their bank account, that the wife’s in-home nursing care cost $1,300 per week, and that in less than a week she would no longer be able to afford food, let alone nursing assistance, the situation became urgent.
My husband and I stepped in to see what could be done. As an attorney used to researching issues and legalities I expected to be able to find out what services and assistance were available quickly and easily. Instead, I found myself in an endless bureaucratic maze that did not offer any solutions. I was appalled at the difficulties inherent in the system. More than 30 phone calls were made to state and federal government offices in two days. Only two were returned and there was no immediate help offered.
An elderly person, alone and ill or suffering the loss of a spouse, simply could not work their way through the system to get help. It became clear why the husband had felt their situation was hopeless. Harrison residents are lucky to have an office of community services that helps to navigate options and services for persons in need. Many towns do not have similar assistance, this couple's town being one of them.
The surviving wife knew they received social security benefits, but did not know where the papers were. She did not know what numbers to call to find out how much those benefits were, or how that income would be affected by her husband’s death. Despite her being in a wheelchair with a speech defect from her stroke, we were not able to access her social security details—even with her providing me with her birth date, her social security number and having her sitting in my presence.
We were told she would have to go to a local social security office—impossible due to her disability—or she must personally speak on the phone to the social security office. It was painful to watch her struggling to read the same information we could have given on the phone and make the person on the other end understand her difficult speech.
She was finally informed that if both spouses receive social security based on their individual earnings, the surviving spouse immediately loses one of those income streams. The surviving spouse is only entitled to whichever of the two social security benefits is higher and the second benefit will cease. So vital base funds dry up immediately.
The only other entitlement available from social security is a paltry $255 for burial costs. I say "paltry" because the cost for just the transport of the body from a medical examiner’s office to a funeral home is more than $3,000. An in-ground burial plot in our area costs around $5,000. An above ground space for a couple costs $32,000. A simple funeral costs several thousand more.
More than 20 calls to the offices of social services seeking a social worker's assistance remained unreturned 10 days after the husband’s death. Not one of those calls to individual officers was answered by anything more than an answering machine. Calls to community aid programs were equally unproductive.
The wife died from a heart attack five days after her husband’s suicide. It was a blessing in disguise-in her eyes, life was no longer worth living.
A friend hearing of the couple’s deaths said: “Obviously being broke is scary, but at least when you are young you have the hope of making lost riches back,when you are old and in failing health, all you have is fear.”
The lesson from this couple’s final days is clear. All of us must plan for the possibility of living to 100 years of age. It is critical to have a financial plan, a plan for your physical care, an advocate or someone to assist as necessary, and have documents that are easy to find, that state your wishes regarding life-extending medical efforts.
Take care of it now.
Don’t leave it until it is too late, when you too are in the position of writing “I see no alternative.”