Preparing for your body for retirement

Experts say its never 'too late' to improve your quality of life

  • Retiring Welll
Retiring Welll (Baltimore Sun Illustration )
April 19, 2014|By Laura Barnhardt Cech, For The Baltimore Sun

Donna Schramek is looking forward to retirement on the Eastern Shore. She loves the smell of the ocean, walking on the beach, and spending time with her grandchildren.

That's why the 64-year-old Brooklyn Park administrative coordinator at Medstar Health didn't hesitate to have arthroscopic knee surgery last month.

The pain "was making me feel old," says Schramek, who plans to retire in the next two years. "It was limiting me."

Health is an important consideration as workers near retirement. From insurance changes to the latest elective surgeries and procedures, there are a multitude of decisions facing retirees.

"Many people are putting off retirement because of economic issues. We're also tending to live longer," says Dr. Steven Gambert, co-director of gerontology and geriatric medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of geriatric medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center. "People need to prepare ahead of time."

In general, there's no need to rush joint replacements or elective surgery, says Gambert, author of "Be Fit For Life: A Guide to Successful Aging." Retirement will offer no-pressure recovery time.

"They shouldn't be in a rush," he says. But, retirees should also not think it's "too late" to consider what might improve quality of life, whether it's a shoulder replacement to make a round of golf more enjoyable or a diet that might improve cardiovascular health.

"From a health point of view, people should not put off anything," says Gambert.

That includes researching insurance options, says Nicole Duritz, vice president for Health, Education and Outreach at AARP.

"Take the time to do your homework," says Duritz. "People spend a lot of time figuring out the best cellphone plan. … Shouldn't you put at least that much time in researching your health coverage?"

Study your options

Because most people opt for Medicare at age 65, it's important to learn about the program ahead of time, Duritz says. The 7-month enrollment period begins from three months before one's 65th birthday to three months after.

"We recommend starting the process early," she says. "There are lots of things to consider."

The biggest decision is whether to choose the original, also known as traditional Medicare, or Medicare Advantage. While it's possible to switch back and forth in open enrollment periods, the two options may differ widely in various regions. So it's advisable to consider whether you plan to spend retirement year-round in Maryland or split residency, says Duritz.

Depending on your current insurance plan, Medicare may be more or less adequate, she says. "There's the assumption that Medicare won't cover as much as employer-based insurance, but that's not necessarily true," Duritz says. "It depends."

Some retirees will chose Medicare as their primary insurance with a retiree plan or another supplemental, "wrap-around" plan. But "Medigap" insurance enrollment is only guaranteed in the first six months, Duritz points out.

In addition to meeting with the human resources person at your office, state health insurance assistance programs — know as "SHIPS" — have counselors available for individual appointments to review what insurance programs are available.

Medicare's website is also helpful for many, and AARP publishes a "Medicare for Dummies."

Specialized care

Medicare also publishes a handbook that, among other things, lists preventative screenings covered.

That can serve as a checklist for retirees. A "Welcome to Medicare" physical is also available in the first 12 months after beginning the program, and annual "wellness" visits are also covered. They provide a chance for your primary-care doctor to review what tests and screenings might be recommended, Duritz says.

The amount of flexibility you might want in seeing specialists will also determine the type of Medicare that's the best fit.

And older people should probably consider an evaluation by a geriatrician once they reach their 80s, or sooner if they have complicated health issues.

"It's a good idea to make sure something isn't being missed," Gambert says.

Teeth and eyes

There are some procedures one should especially consider before retirement because of Medicare limits: dental and vision.

Unless you have retiree dental benefits, it's a good idea to complete dental work before you retire, including exams, X-rays, fillings and restorative work and cleanings, says Janet Yellowitz, University of Maryland School of Dentistry's director of geriatric dentistry.

You'll also need to factor dental visits into your retirement budget.

Twice-a-year exams are ideal. Once a year is the absolute minimum, says Yellowitz. "That doesn't mean once every three years," she says.

Nerves around teeth are less sensitive as we age, Yellowitz says. "The good news is, as you age, you don't get as much dental pain. The bad news is, you can have disease and not know it."

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