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suburban diary

Too many elderly go broke without anyone knowing

My Dad died broke.

My brother and two sisters got this revelation just two months before cancer killed him three years ago this month. He was 70.

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I still can’t find the guts to delete his number from my cellphone.

When you’re watching a parent die, or anyone you love, the horror is all you can focus on.

For a while, that is.

Sooner or later, the mounting medical bills come calling and that can be as ugly as the disease.

When we learned my father had virtually nothing left to his name in the form of property or finances when he died, we were shocked. We knew he wasn’t well off anymore. We just didn’t know he was busted.

Millions of seniors are drowning in debt, trying to heat their homes, pay for medications, eat some food, and keep themselves out of a retirement home, where they’ll absolutely go broke.

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The 1980s were a wonderful time to make money if you didn’t mind the hustle. My dad hustled. He worked his way off a furniture truck to become a ritzy country-club card carrier with a longtime financial business in downtown Melrose.

My father drove a sports car, bought a big brick house, smoked a lot of butts, and read a lot of books.

He was a success! All this by age 50. Not bad.

Hank, my neighbor in New Hampshire, was a success, too. He got early retirement from the phone company a long time ago.

Best health plan ever. Best pension ever. Best place in the world to retire from, back then anyway.

Hank figured he was covered financially. He was wrong.

I can remember on countless occasions looking over at Hank messing around in his yard on some fine Monday morning — mowing, clipping, raking — and thinking to myself, ‘‘Now I want to be him instead of the cat.’’

Recently, Hank arrived at my back door in tears.

At a loss, this old man, so strong with hands like horse saddles, was busted up like no one’s business. His mouth was quivering, buckets of tears pooling beyond his thick glasses.

He told us his wife of 35 years whispered, “Goodbye. You’ve been a good man, a good husband.” Then she died.

Hank started talking about his life, all the years he worked, the money he saved, the golden years he was promised. “Not so golden . . .” Yeah, I know that one, too.

He was angry and terrified of the future, not only because he had lost the love of his life, but because the astronomical medical bills incurred throughout her illness still needed to be settled.

What a horrific way to mourn.

No person past their 70s should suffer going broke. That’s a young man’s folly. But today, millions of seniors are drowning in debt, trying to heat their homes, pay for medications, eat some food, and keep themselves out of a retirement home, where they’ll absolutely go broke.

Prophetic in hiding his financial demise, out of pride and shame, my father found himself so underwater that he stopped fighting through the current.

He retired too early at 53. Stopped hustling and dreamed way too big. With earning out of the equation, every buck he borrowed and spent led him deeper into the abyss.

Had his children an inkling he was drowning in something other than the disease, we would have helped.

But the Christmas cards with cash inside arrived each year for the grandkids. Weddings and dinners were paid for, college educations funded, credit extended. He refused to let on.

In fact, my father — long split with my mom — appeared to be comfortable. I always thought he was being shrewd with his money, in a survival sort of way.

Live on the cheap, bare-boned. Spend it all but make it last.

Impossible these days.

Like Hank, it didn’t matter how much money my father tried to sock away. It wasn’t enough to live out his years in peace.

My father was no street urchin, thumbing for nickels on a cold, dark winter’s night, and neither is Hank.

As one finance friend of mine told me: ‘‘You have no idea how broke so many people your father’s age are. And you would never know it.’’

And that’s no way to live, grieve, or die.

Rob Azevedo grew up in Melrose and now lives in Manchester, N.H. He can be reached at onemanmanch
@gmail.com
.
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