Once upon a time, someone got an idea that we should all start the new year with a clean slate - -  and new year’s resolutions were invented.  From New Year’s Eve through the first or second week of January, everyone wants to know what you have resolved to do for the coming year.  Most of us vow to make one or more changes to our life, whether we need to or not, and whether or not we are ready to do so.  The #1 resolution is to lose weight and start exercising.  By the end of January, about the time you will receive this month’s newsletter, it is estimated that 40% of all new year’s resolutions will have been broken.  By the end of the year, the number will soar to 80%.  And next year, the process will probably be repeated.

Psychologists can have a field day explaining why resolutions fail.  I have my own ideas.  I think there are two primary reasons: (1) Resolutions are usually an expression of a wish rather than the statement of a specific goal.  (2) Resolutions are usually made at the wrong time and without a real plan.  Every December 31st for as long as I can remember, I promised myself to lose weight and start exercising.  Some years, I made it for a few months.  Some years, I didn’t even get started, either because New Year’s parties got in the way, or because of some other distraction.  “Wait ‘till next year,” I would say.  The real reasons were that I had not thought through how I was going to lose weight and that I simply wasn’t motivated to make a commitment.  As a result, things got worse rather than better.  Does anyone identify with that?

Last year began differently.  I decided in January that, after so many failures, I would not make any resolutions until I was ready.  In July, with half the year gone things changed.  My clothes didn’t fit any more.  I had to wear pants with elastic waistbands.  I had a two-day trial coming up and only one suit to wear.  My blood pressure medication was making me tired all the time, and my cholesterol medication made me ache all over.  Every time I took a blood test, I held my breath until I received the results, afraid the doctor would tell me I had diabetes.  I also noticed something about my clients, particularly those who are 80+ years of age.  None of them are fat.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized I don’t know very many fat people over age 80.  That actually makes sense.  Every study I have ever heard of equates obesity with heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.  Good genes - - my father was then 94 and my mother 93 - - would take me just so far.  I was putting myself at risk.

My wish was, as always, to lose weight.  Knowing that wishing does not always make things come true [“When You Wish Upon a Star . . . All Your Dreams Will Come True” happens only in Pinocchio], I made my 2010 New Year’s resolution last July and set a goal - - to lose 60 pounds within a year and get off blood pressure and cholesterol medication, all to be achieved in stages.  More important, I decided exactly how I would go about getting to my objective.  After 5 months, I reached my first weight loss goal.  My doctor cut my cholesterol in half and reduced the blood pressure medicine to see the effects of the weight loss.  A month later, a blood test showed my cholesterol level to be excellent.  My blood pressure went down, drastically, to a level I had not seen in 30 years.  I am now just 22 pounds from my goal weight.  Some of my old clothes are no longer too small, they are too big!

I have not made a resolution for 2011, because the one from last year is still a work in progress, but next month, as soon as I get clearance from my doctor, I’ll be ready to add an exercise program to my list of objectives. 

My experience in dealing with my weight was my way of THINKING AHEAD and PLANNING AHEAD for my health.  The same concept applies to planning for the financial future of senior citizens.  I regularly receive calls from, or have met with, individuals in their 50's who have a parent about to enter a nursing home.  In some cases, the family never gave any thought to what would happen if one of the parents needed long-term care.  Suddenly, they realize that nursing home costs can wipe out a life’s savings in a short time.  “What we can do,” they ask, “to protect our parents’ assets.”  When both parents are alive and own their own home, we can usually develop a plan to protect the parent who will continue living at home (the “Community Spouse”).  However, when only one parent is alive, or when there is no house, I have to break the news that their options are limited.  Asset transfers are subject to the 5-year look-back rule that imposes a penalty period of Medicaid ineligibility - - unless the transfers were made more than 5 years before the submission of the Medicaid application, or unless certain exceptions apply.  The rules are complicated and difficult to understand and are not uniformly applied from county to county.  Waiting too long, improper planning and resorting only to self-help can result in missed opportunities and significant financial losses.

Even worse are than families where the adult children tell me they and their parents have been talking about planning for a long time, but they never got around to implementing one; or where parents stubbornly have refused to consider anything. In many cases, no one contacted a professional for advice about what to do.  It is not uncommon for adult children to be unable to get through to their aging parents in various matters, because the parents have become set in their ways.  Sometimes, we a solution to health issues by convincing our parents to visit a doctor, who shows them how they can feel better by a change in medication or lifestyle.  The same concept holds true for financial health.  To paraphrase a famous proverb, consider bringing the “horse to water” and let the Elder Lawyer make the parent drink.

 The changes to the Medicaid law that went into effect on February 8, 2006, have made most attorneys, accountants and financial planners acutely aware that is in the best interests of their clients, after they reach age 65 and they become eligible for Medicare and almost eligible for full-fledged Social Security benefits, to start thinking about protecting their assets for the future.  Because estate planning for seniors is a highly-specialized area, accountants, financial planners and most attorneys will refer their clients to an Elder Law attorney.  We often work together with our clients’ accountants and financial planners to develop a plan specifically for the client.

If your parents are senior citizens, or if you have relatives or friends who are senior citizens, now is the time to consider whether asset preservation is enough of a goal for them to make a new year’s resolution for 2011 to THINK AHEAD.  PLAN AHEAD!