Bob Dylan hit on a universal truth when he sang about his son and the attraction of remaining young.
May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
Dylan’s voice was best described, famously by Joyce Carol Oates, as if sandpaper could sing. But he was, according to Time magazine, “the guiding spirit of the counterculture” and the voice of his generation. Today that generation — my generation, the Baby Boomers, including Dylan — is no longer young. None of us is going to defeat Father Time, either. As Dylan’s friend John Mellencamp sang in Longest Days, “one day you get sick and you don’t get better.”
Those of us lucky enough to live so long will see our bodies and minds slip and in many cases slip badly. Studies confirm what most of us have seen among our families and friends, even if we’ll never admit it about ourselves. Cognitive ability declines significantly with age. That is largely why seniors lose $37 billion to fraud annually. To put it starkly, the research shows that financial literacy declines by about 2 percent each year roughly after age 60.
Despite that decline, our self-confidence in our financial abilities remains undiminished (and may even increase) as we age. I’ve seen it personally (and tragically). The aged and infirm drive too long, buy too many needless things from the unscrupulous, and simply aren’t as good at making decisions as they once were. As cognitive impairment increases, the aging remain certain that they’re really okay and become belligerent when anyone suggests otherwise. We all like to think we’re highly competent and desperately want to maintain our independence. Trying gently to let aging loved ones know that they need help can readily turn into an ugly confrontation.
In 1999, David Dunning and Justin Kruger published a paper that documented how, in many areas of life, incompetent people do not — cannot! — recognize just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Subsequent testing has shown that people who don’t know much tend grossly to overestimate their prowess and performance in a wide variety of areas, including logical reasoning and financial knowledge. Aging makes that tendency even worse. Thus, for example, elderly people applying for a renewed driver’s license overestimate their driving competence by a lot.
This seemingly inevitable conflict between the aging and those who love them, about the extent and nature of the mental decline and what should be done about, it plays out horribly every day among families of all sorts. Tom Benson got his start as a used-car salesman, but came to own multiple car dealerships, banks, real estate, a television station, the NFL’s New Orleans Saints and the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans. In 2015, a then 87 year-old Benson was being treated for Alzheimer’s and dementia when he was ordered to undergo mental evaluations by three different doctors, despite his strenuous objections, to decide if he remained competent to control his businesses and to make decisions, as part of litigation brought by his daughter and grandchildren, who Benson had come to see as ungrateful. “I found out they didn’t love me very much, trying to stab me in the back, wanted to take over everything, brought me to court saying I was crazy,” he said.
Not surprisingly, the dispute centered upon a much younger third wife Benson wanted to “take over when I die” and his abrupt decision to fire his daughter and grandchildren from their long-held positions with his companies, cut off contact with them and disinherit them. The third wife helped her husband compile and maintain a list of grievances against his daughter and grandchildren, so he could brood over and reference it despite the decline in his memory and mental facilities. Meanwhile, his granddaughter cornered Benson while he was heavily medicated and recorded their conversation in order to try to demonstrate his mental incompetence.
Benson prevailed over his progeny in the litigation. A subsequent new will made the wife Benson’s sole beneficiary and specifically excluded the estranged family name by name. The family seems forever fractured. “To have your kids turn against you — that’s for the birds,” Benson said, adding that he would like to leave his daughter and grandchildren “zero.” When asked why, he replied, “Well, they tried to kill me for one thing.”
Benson died in March of this year, at the age of 90. His widow is now the sole owner of both the Saints and Pelicans and runs the Benson business empire. Benson’s daughter and grandchildren have no role, but have five years under Louisiana law to challenge the new will. There is no indication so far as to whether they will.
Right up until he died, Benson maintained that he was still sharp and in control. He may well have been. His daughter and grandchildren said that he was not what he once was and was under the sway of a much younger wife who is not their mother and grandmother. They may have been right. Indeed, they may all have been right, at least to some extent. This sort of fight is all too common. The one certainty in these types of situations is that they are a major mess — an ugly, contentious, and expensive mess – of the sort we’d all like to avoid.
I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about what I might do to limit the chances that I will fall prey to this sort of dreadful decline scenario. Since I am fortunate enough to have this public, written outlet in order to communicate my thinking generally, I am writing this particular piece with a very specific purpose. In effect, I want this article to serve as a letter to my future self and to act as a commitment device. Since I’m blessed with children who are smart, honorable and financially literate, this is a reminder to my future self simply to listen to them and to keep listening to them when they tell me I need some help.
By way of this post I am asking them — begging them — to show me this article if I resist them in any way in this regard. Since psychologist Hal Ersner-Hershfield has found that those who most identify with their future selves do a better job planning for the future, this exercise should help even if I might be inclined (wrongly) to ignore this article and my children’s advice in the future. However, more than that, I’m hoping and praying that this post — put in front of my face and read aloud if necessary — will be enough to convince my future self to listen to the people who I know love me when they (I hope gently) let me know that I could use more help than I’m allowing.
So Bob, when the kids tell you to stop driving, give them the keys. When they tell you to run major decisions past them, agree to a system that enforces your cooperation (requiring a co-signer on checks, for example). When they tell you to consider whether you ought to keep living without help, look into getting care or moving to an assisted living facility (and take their advice as to which option is best). When they — horror of horrors — offer financial advice, take it. You are beyond blessed to have three fantastic kids who have made you proud every day of their lives. Trust them to love you and to watch out for you, even when you don’t like it — even if you are convinced that what they say or suggest is dead wrong.
Dear future me, as much as it may pain you, listen to your kids and the people who love you. Take their advice. Please.