Rice and Beans and Four-Dollar Jeans

No, that’s not a lyric from a country song. It’s my life and how I’ve tried to live within my means even when my budget has been as tight as the shoes my kids were constantly outgrowing. We’ve eaten a lot of beans and rice. Hey, it’s not only cheap, it’s tasty and healthy. The $4 jeans refers to my penchant for buying clothes at thrift stores. It’s not only clothes – I rarely buy anything new.

My mother grew up in dire poverty, and thus learned to stretch a penny like nobody’s business. She passed these skills on to me. I’ve discovered if you look hard enough, you can find almost anything used. Probably my most serendipitous find was a $20 car-top carrier, purchased a week before we were leaving for a cross-country camping road trip. Here are some other bargains I’ve found at thrift stores and garage sales.

Look beyond the plant to the lace curtains. $10 for three sets.
Look beyond the plant to the lace curtains. $10 for three sets.                               
$15 wooden doll house. It came without the furniture, but we added that a room at a time each Christmas and birthday. My kids played the heck out of this for a good chunk of their childhood years.
$15 wooden doll house. It came without the furniture, but we added that a room at a time each Christmas and birthday. My kids played the heck out of this for a good chunk of their childhood years.                             
$5 bread machine. I've wanted one of these for years, and fufilled my wish a few weeks ago. Thanks to the gluten-free fad, there's a thrift store glut on these. It works! Yum.
$5 bread machine. I’ve wanted one of these for years, and fufilled my wish a few weeks ago. Thanks to the gluten-free fad, there’s a thrift store glut on these. It works! Yum.             
It doesn't get better than free. Found this table at the Curbside Mall when a neighbor was moving out. Snagged it before the trash truck did.
It doesn’t get better than free. Found this table at the Curbside Mall when a neighbor was moving out. Snagged it before the trash truck did.                                              
A few years ago, my son was obsessed with domino toppling. We found these fun sets at a thrift store for 50 cents each.
A few years ago, my son was obsessed with domino toppling. We found these fun sets at a thrift store for 50 cents each.     
Bought from another neighbor who was moving. Multi-game table for $25.
Bought from another neighbor who was moving. Multi-game table for $25.               
Our house was (and remains to an extent) a fixer-upper. When we moved in, we had no overhead light in the master bedroom. But $8 spent at a garage sale combined with my hubster's labor resolved that problem.
Our house was (and remains to an extent) a fixer-upper. When we moved in, we had no overhead light in the master bedroom. But $8 spent at a garage sale combined with my hubster’s labor and electrical know-how resolved that problem.                          
Everyone had a jean jacket but me. I felt left out. Until I found a rack of them at a consignment store. $10.
Everyone had a jean jacket but me. I felt left out. Until I found a rack of them at a consignment store. $10.                                     
$2 shower curtain.
$2 shower curtain.
$10 kitchen knife set, including a sharpener.
$10 kitchen knife set, including a sharpener. Yes, I know, my grout needs help. See the fixer-upper comment above. It’s on the list.       
$2 leather handbag. I've carried this for three years now. It does a fit a good-sized book, which is an important feature.
$2 leather handbag. I’ve carried this for three years now. It does a fit a good-sized book, which is an important feature.

 

Elders Living Alone – Making Sure They Eat

 

 

UPDATE: I’ve made a couple of corrections below, where I mangled Debi’s intent on her suggestions. Sorry about that. Also, an addition at the bottom.

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Since my mother is in a skilled nursing facility, I don’t have to worry about meals. But for many adult children of older parents, a big concern is making sure Mom  or Dad is eating enough of the right foods. If you live nearby – close enough to visit at least a couple of times a month – there are steps you can take to help.

The following suggestions come from Debi Boggs (Thanks, Debi!):

While visiting, cook in large batches – enough for a meal and at least two servings of leftovers. Freeze the leftovers in single-serving portions. Use resealable bags if washing dishes is a hardship, or something your older relative just doesn’t want to deal with. You can be extra green in your own home to make up for this.

Pizza “kits” make an easy meal. Buy one or two balls of pizza dough at the store, quarter them, stretch them into pizza rounds, and place each round on a sheet of parchment paper. Each quarter will fit into a gallon-sized resealable bag. Take two small bags for each large, pouring the correct amount of sauce in one and the correct amount of shredded cheese in the other. Place these in the larger bags. With a marker, write assembly and baking instructions on the outside of the gallon bags. These kits will stack easily in the freezer.

Roasted vegetables also freeze well and are easy to microwave.

Make a grocery trip and stock the kitchen with a significant inventory of low-prep or no-prep food items: oatmeal, fruit cups (look for the ones packed in real fruit juice), low-sodium soups, coffee, tea, yogurt with the latest possible expiration date, pre-chopped salad, frozen brown rice, canned vegetables. Of course, fresh is healthier, but canned veggies keep for a long time and are a much better option than going hungry.

Whether Mom or Dad is doing the grocery shopping, or having someone else do it for them, a standard grocery list is a good idea. Print and laminate a list of items they consume on a weekly basis. This way, the list can be carried in a purse and re-used.

For those on a budget, check out Aldi’s if there’s one in your area. They usually have the best prices on plain yogurt, canned goods and oatmeal.

The idea is to make it as easy as possible to get good nutrition.

Anyone else have handy tips? Feel free to share in the comments.

Christmas on the Couch

It’s Christmas afternoon and I’m still in my pajamas. On the couch. Coughing up a lung. This holiday isn’t going as planned. But then I’ve always heard the way to make the Universe laugh is to make a plan. It must be chuckling up a storm. I’m trying to laugh along and make the best of it. For instance, right after typing that sentence I added to the gaiety by accidentally dumping out the contents of a nearly-full economy-sized bag of cough drops. Ha ha ha!

After my mother spent several hours at our house on Thanksgiving, it became obvious she can no longer handle so much disruption in her day. Her back problems flared worse than ever and she was exhausted. It took her days to recover. I had a little moment when my husband, kids and I were decorating our Christmas tree, our ornaments including a few vintage ones that survived my childhood. I experienced a wave of sadness knowing my mom will never decorate a tree with me again. She’ll likely never come to our house again. I also had a few seconds of irritability over the fact that humanity hasn’t developed teleportation technology yet, because it would solve this problem. She could beam in for a few minutes and then beam back to the nursing home. I settled for taking a photo of the tree to show her.

The best Christmas tree. We got a spectacular one this year.
The best Christmas tree. We got a spectacular one this year. Not many ornaments down low because three cats.

I asked Mom if she thought she could handle a short outing to a restaurant. She believes she can, so our plan was to pick her up on Christmas Eve and go to IHOP, her favorite. For today, I thought I’d make a lasagna and some sides to have at home and at some time during the day pop over to visit Mom again. But over the weekend I developed a tickle in my throat, the same tickle reported by some of my local acquaintances before they fell all-out sick. Yep, I caught the thing that’s going around. Also, over the weekend, one of my molars broke and I managed to acquire a second-degree burn on my arm while removing a dish from the oven. At some point, my life started to resemble a sit-com plot. However, if I’ve learned anything from my mother, it’s to make the best of the situation, whatever it is.

Though I’m sad not to be with my mom on Christmas, I’m reminded once again how blessed I am with family, both immediate and extended. My husband and my 15-year-old son went over yesterday to see my mom (the 18-year-old caught what I have, so stayed home) and take her gift plus the staff gift bag I put together.

Let me go off the rails here, and recommend this idea for nurses, aides and housekeeping staff at skilled nursing facilities. Since there are so many of them, I put together a bag of items for the break room: hot cocoa mix, including regular and sugar-free, a variety of teas, popcorn, mixed nuts, snack crackers, etc. It’s easy and covers everyone.

For the staff break room at the nursing home.
For the staff break room at the nursing home.

Back to family now – my two guys had a good visit with my mom. Plus I put out the word to far-flung relatives that I couldn’t see her on Christmas, so she might appreciate some phone calls. When I called her about an hour ago, she was thrilled to report her phone had been ringing all yesterday and today. This cheers me up.

Also, my spouse and kids make the holiday fun. We’re a geeky crew who all like a good joke. After my two teens went on errands without me the other day, a package appeared under our tree with a gift tag saying it was to the whole family, and from:

We are favored by the Marvel superheroes.
We are favored by the Marvel superheroes.

The kids come by this creative packaging honestly. Here’s what my husband gave me this year:

My husband gave me a box of rocks.
My husband gave me a box of rocks.
No really, it's a box of rocks.
No really, it’s a box of rocks.
Oh wait, there was something underneath the rocks. Michelle Obama arms, here I come!
Oh wait, there was something underneath the rocks. Michelle Obama arms, here I come!

It’s hard not to have fun when the people around you are putting so much effort into making the event enjoyable.

Our three cats have helped, too, taking turns sitting on my lap.

Top Seniority Cat - my 15-year-old kid doesn't remember life without her.
Top Seniority Cat – my 15-year-old kid doesn’t remember life without her.
Cat who is on a diet, but sneaks the other cats' food if we're not careful.
Cat who is on a diet, but sneaks the other cats’ food if we’re not careful.
Cat who showed up and adopted us a few months ago.
Cat who showed up and adopted us a few months ago.

Then there’s the Pandora Christmas station for holiday cheer, and Netflix to give me a chance to watch some of those movies I’ve been meaning to watch over the years. I finally saw “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. Not much of a story, after all, but the singing and dancing is wonderful. I tried watching “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and now take comfort in the knowledge I haven’t been missing much. After 15 minutes, I switched to “Men in Black.” Much more entertaining. I’ll have to dial up the sequels.

While I languish on the couch, my family members have been foraging in lieu of a Christmas dinner appearing for them. Macaroni and cheese has been cooked, and we’ve wiped out the back stock of canned soup. Meanwhile, IHOP awaits for the day when we’re all well again. And I still have the ingredients for lasagna.

Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts

authorized

I’ve seen a recurring theme in my life lately. I find myself with a responsibility to get something done, but not the authority. It always comes down to dealing with bureaucracy. Three examples:

1. After more than a year of frustration in dealing with Social Security on my mom’s behalf, I finally decided I needed to go ahead and have myself appointed her Representative Payee. Power of Attorney gets you nowhere with Social Security. Occasionally, if you get a sympathetic person on the other of the phone, that will get you somewhere. But for the most part they want only to speak to the person herself and not her daughter or anyone else, even if she’s given that person Power of Attorney to act on her behalf.

I kept waffling on the Representative Payee thing because it means Mom’s money will be paid to me and I’ll have more forms to fill out accounting for it. However, it’s gotten to the point that I simply have to do this. Mom can’t even make a phone call without help any more. I did get her permission; I didn’t want to feel I was doing it on the sly.

First I had to get a letter from her physician stating she’s not competent to make her own decisions. This was an emotional wrench, let me tell you.  I took the letter plus all of her personal papers down to the local Social Security office, where a very kind woman asked me 20,000 required questions. (Okay, only about a dozen really.) She typed a bunch on her computer and said my application had been submitted. Meanwhile I was supposed to go to the bank and change my mom’s account – my name is on it, too – to reflect the new status, and send proof of this change to Social Security. That’s the only way they’ll be authorized to send her checks there. My understanding was that I was to do this immediately.

I toodled on down to the bank, only to be told they can’t make the change without something from Social Security stating I already am the Representative Payee. Okay then. Thank goodness for patient customer service type folks. The bank guy actually called Social Security while I was sitting there to make sure we were doing things in the right order. Yep, I had to wait.

The letter came a couple of days ago naming me as RP. So I went back to the bank and got the account changed. Now, hopefully, the government peeps will talk to me next time I have to call about her Medicare or something.

2. This one isn’t about my mom. It’s about my phone service. We still have a landline in our house, with the same phone number we’ve had for 19 years. Our phone company is also our internet service provider. I did, however decide to drop the long distance service we had (through a different company) because we use our cell phones for that now, so why keep paying the monthly fee?

I called the long distance company and everything was fine there. They advised me I’d need to call – okay I’ll name them – CenturyLink as well to make sure we were good and cancelled. I called CenturyLink and was told I was not an authorized user on the account. Only my husband held that status, so he personally would need to call to make any changes. Hoo boy.

Here’s some background. I have always handled all of our household bills and utilities. I have always put everything in both of our names. I remember personally walking into the phone company office way back when we moved to town and setting up our account. We’ve always been listed in the phone book under both names. Through the years, the name of the phone company changed and we added internet service through them, but we kept the same phone number and I was always the one who dealt with them. We’ve moved four times with this phone number and I personally switched it to our new residence each and every time. I was the one who originally dropped long distance with them and switched to a different long distance provider. My husband has called tech support a couple of times for internet issues. Otherwise, I have handled everything with them for 19 years. Until, suddenly, in the year 2013, they tell me I have to get my husband’s permission to speak with the phone company.

I sent an email stating all of this, plus asking if they were operating from a 1950s policy manual. They said they’d send a form so I could be added to the account. Meanwhile, my husband called and gave his say-so to put my name on there. But I’m still upset because he shouldn’t have had to do this. I should not need my husband’s permission to do grown-up stuff.

3. Medicaid. I’ve been helping my mother apply for Medicaid. And by helping, I mean doing everything because she can’t. Yesterday, she received a letter, care of me at my address, saying both that she’d been approved for Medicaid coverage and it was retroactive to April and that she was ineligible for Medicaid at this time. I kid you not. I certainly didn’t see that one coming. At the bottom of the letter is a name and a phone number to call if you have any questions.

This morning, I called. And got a recorded message telling me to dial a different number. I called the different number. Did you know that having Power of Attorney and also being Representative Payee through Social Security for someone does not mean that Medicaid will talk to you in order to help that person? It’s true. Missouri Medicaid has their own form, specific to their agency, that you have to fill out and get signed in order to be authorized as a representative for someone else. They won’t accept the Power of Attorney form plus the physician’s letter plus the authorization from Social Security plus an immediate family relationship plus the fact that you’re the one who has provided every piece of information to them so far as evidence that you have any right to find out from them what the letter means that they sent to your parent in care of you at your home address.They also won’t answer general questions, phrased as “Say a hypothetical person got a letter from you saying thus and such. What would that mean?” So now I await the form to be mailed to me so I have will have authorization to call them to find out whether “yes and no” means yes or no.

To some extent, I get it. I really do. I know privacy is a huge issue. I know identity theft happens and older folks are particularly vulnerable. I appreciate the fact that they won’t let any random citizen call up and get personal information about my mother. But she has signed a legal document stating she wants me to handle her affairs. If I have a signed and notarized form to this effect, plus my name on her bank account, a birth certificate showing I am really her child…why can’t they let me help her? Why is it so complicated? And as for the phone company, I cut them no slack.

Dealing with bureaucracy – death by a thousand paper cuts.

Extra Medicare Help for Low Income Seniors

Well, it’s happened. My mom has reached the end of her money. Her Medicaid application is in process. I’ve also discovered that low-income seniors can get extra help with Medicare prescription drug premiums. It’s easy to apply on-line. I wish I’d realized sooner that she qualified.

The hard part comes when the Social Security office double checks with the bank and gets inaccurate information. When my mom moved to town, one of the first things I did was open a checking account for her at the bank I already use. My name is on her account, as well, because I take care of her bills.

My name is on five accounts at this particular bank, in fact: a joint checking account with my husband, a joint savings account with my husband, my daughter’s savings account, my son’s savings account and my mom’s checking account. Despite the number of accounts, it doesn’t add up to all that much somehow. But enough to disqualify my mom from help with her premiums when the bank erroneously reports the sum total to Social Security as *all* belonging to my mother. Hello. Her name is on exactly one account, the tiniest one. Her account is not even tied to the others; it’s not like I can transfer money back and forth.

I think I have it straightened out now and have her application moving forward again. Nothing’s ever simple, I tell you.

Postcards – a Practical Suggestion

Armchair travel and education - as easy as it gets.
Armchair travel and education – as easy as it gets.

 

My sister-in-law loves to send postcards. In addition to picking up new cards when traveling, she finds vintage stock at antique stores. My kids have enjoyed getting mail over the years, and examining the pictures on the front sides. Now she sends cards to my mom.

We’re fortunate to have a large extended family, even if none of them live in town. So a lot of people send cards to my mom. It’s sweet and picks up her spirits, knowing she’s not forgotten.

However, her fine motor skills and finger strength have degraded over time, so that even the act of opening an envelope can pose a challenge for her. She’s been known to save mail for a day or two until I visit, so I can open it for her. Postcards don’t present this problem. They arrive ready to read and enjoy the artwork.

True, there’s a lack of privacy, with the words there for anyone to see. But most of the cards Mom receives have no private information included anyway. And to be honest, not much is private in a skilled nursing setting.

I suggest more folks start sending postcards to their elderly relatives, especially the ones in poor health. They’re less expensive than greeting cards, both for the product and the postage. They often include a scene and a piece of information about it that can be a topic of interest and new information for the recipient. And they’re easy to tape or pin up for decoration.

As soon as I have time, I plan to hit a local antique store myself to see if I can score a handful. My mom’s not the only senior citizen amongst my relatives.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…Calling Medicare

I have no poignant anecdotes to include in this blog post. Only a piece of advice about dealing with Medicare over the phone.

If at first you don’t succeed, then try calling again to speak with a different representative. This is the lesson I’ve learned as I’ve been on the phone with Medicare a few times on my mom’s behalf. Long story short on my most recent issue, I was simply trying to make sure her prescription drug coverage didn’t lapse.

Nobody seems to have a whole picture of what’s going on. Sometimes I call and the person says they can only speak to her and not to me, even though I did both mail and fax a form she signed giving me permission. Other folks, as long as I can supply her Social Security number, place of birth, etc., they’re good with it. Doesn’t mean they can tell me what I need to know, but they will try. I’ve gotten transferred a lot. I think everything’s good now. She has her new prescription drug cards.

And I figured out something. If the representative I’ve reached seems unable or unwilling to help, I shouldn’t accept that answer as the end of the matter. I simply say, “Thanks for your time. Goodbye.” Then I hang and up and immediately redial. The person with whom I was just speaking has moved on to a different call, and I get someone new. Possibly someone who knows more or is more willing to work with me. This strategy has solved my problem more than once. And, magically, they never seem to realize I have already called and talked to someone else who told me they couldn’t help. I’d assumed they would put a not in the record, a note the next person would see, but apparently not.

So if you’re getting the run-around with Medicare, just keep calling back. It works for me.