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Ten Ways to Deal with Bag Lady Syndrome

A comment from reader KML on my recent “bag lady syndrome” piece moved me to think more about this subject. I was going to enter a response as a comment to that post, but by the time I finished typing realized the result was itself a post. And so, more on women’s fear of a destitute old age:

Says KML: Thank goodness! I thought I was the only one who has this “syndrome” I seriously worry about being out on the streets simply bc I am single and have no one to fall back on.  I have a comfortable house, good job and a few dollars in the bank, but I still have this irrational fear.  Thanks for your post, I feel better just knowing that I’m the only one who wories about this. . . .

@ KML: It’s unclear whether a real psychological condition fitting the description of “bag lady syndrome” exists. It’s a pop-psych/pop-soc term. When you try to track down a little science on the subject, the best you come up with is that some psychologists think it’s a type of anxiety disorder.

Well, to my mind it’s perfectly rational to be concerned about whether your resources—savings, Social Security, kids who can help support you, whatever—will cover you until the end of your life, especially in a time when many people now in their 50s and 60s can expect to live into their 90s…and maybe beyond. It becomes a “disorder” when worrying about your financial security begins to inflict damage on your quality of life. Fear of destitution seems to have been observed among Americans as early as 1985, when psychologists Aaron Beck, Gary Emery, and Ruth Greenberg noted that one man anxious about the future was much helped simply by setting up arrangements to care for his family: talking with financial advisers, writing a will, taking out insurance policies.

A father’s concern about the well-being of his wife and children should he die, of course, is different from a single woman’s concern about her own future. To take advantage of a life insurance policy, you have to die…and that seems counterproductive.

However, whether you’re a man or a woman wondering about the future, I do think you can take a number of steps that help to alleviate that nagging worry:

Plan your retirement income with the help of a financial counselor.
Budget intelligently.
Try to get yourself into a paid-off dwelling, if at all possible.
If that’s not possible, seek comfortable, safe lodging at a reasonable rental.
Try to get a reliable, paid-off vehicle that will last for a long time.
As long as you’re physically able, arrange an ancillary income stream with a part-time job or by monetizing a hobby.
If you can afford it, buy long-term care insurance.
If you have a partner or a family member who will require care after you’re gone, buy life insurance.
Schedule time once a month to reconcile bank accounts and pay bills; avoid thinking about finances at other times.
Get out of the house frequently, so you don’t sit around stewing.

Most of us can do many or all of these things. And really, maybe the best thing we all can do for ourselves is to recognize when we’re worrying to much and decline to continue with it. As Scarlett O’Hara reminded us, “Tomorrow is another day.”

Whence Bag Lady Syndrome?

At home in the bus stop

I suffer markedly from bag lady syndrome, the haunting sense that one of these days I’m going to end up living on the street. Sometimes I wonder where the hell it comes from. Really, there’s enough in the bank to support me without my ever having to lift a finger in paying work again…but I do lift fingers—all ten of them—in that cause. What am I so scared of?

Late last summer, Sandy L wrote a post at FirstGen American that threw some light on the issue: she suggests many women are subjected to verbal abuse that leads to negative self-talk. We convince ourselves that we’ll never amount to much, because we’ve been told so. Often.

Although my father was not a drinker like Sandy’s, I spent my childhood and early adult life watching my father manipulate my mother by exploiting the fact—and it was a fact—that she couldn’t take care of herself financially. When, as he did every now and again, he would tell her that if she didn’t quit spending “his” money he was going to leave her, he was abusing her.

Now, it’s true that neither of them would have seen it that way. My guess is, they both would have regarded the basis of his threats as ordinary reality. The most she ever earned, working full-time, would not have paid our rent.

Like most women in her generation, she couldn’t support herself on whatever tiny salary she might have been able to earn. To this day, it’s a fact that a large proportion of elderly women end their lives in poverty—even if they spent most of their years in the economic middle class. As the Great Recession was about to descend on us, among women 65 and over, 37 percent of those who were divorced or separated were living in poverty; 28 percent of widows lived in poverty; and 22 percent of single, never-married women lived in poverty. Think of that. Over a third of divorcees, over a quarter of widows, over a fifth of singletons are spending their “golden years” dirt-poor.

It explains a lot about why I live in fear of ending up in a campsite beneath the Seventh Avenue Overpass. I was brought up to think women—particularly me—can’t take care of themselves. As attitudes go, it’s a very difficult one to overcome, particularly when the reality of senior women reinforces it.

My father treated me like an idiot. He made it clear he thought I was stupid, strange, and incompetent. A Phi Beta Kappa key, a doctorate, and three books published through high-quality presses did nothing but confirm his suspicions.

And yes, I was a weird little kid. Like other girls in my generation, I was brought up to be a housewife and urged to get training as a secretary, “just in case” I should someday need a job if the real breadwinner was incapacitated, died, or abandoned me and his kids. My craving to grow up to be an astrophysicist was beside the point; “you can,” I was told, “always have astronomy as a hobby.”

How fortunate I was that his influence was counterbalanced by the women on my mother’s side of the family! Though I don’t buy into Christian Science, the worldview to which my great-grandmother and great-aunt subscribed, nobody espouses “positive thinking” more powerfully than do Christian Scientists. These two, who took in my mother as a teenager and partly raised her, lived together in a pretty little Berkeley foothills bungalow after my great-grandfather died. During the process of his dying, the existence of a long-term mistress in San Francisco came to light. As you can imagine, my great-grandmother, affectionately known as “Gree,” was in no hurry to remarry after having spent a lifetime laboring as a man’s house servant, and I suppose the effect must have reverberated with her daughter, my great-aunt.

Gertrude,  said great-aunt, lost her young husband in the 1917 flu epidemic, shortly after her son was born. She became an executive secretary (today the position would probably be a middle manager) at Crocker-Anglo National Bank, and from then on her pay, which must have been fairly modest, supported her, her son, and her mother in a pleasant home and in a cozy enough lifestyle. She sent her son to UC Berkeley and had enough to help him purchase land and build a beautiful house in Kensington, overlooking the San Francisco Bay. He became a vice president of Standard Oil.

They didn’t live like Queens of Sheba, but they never wanted for anything. They each lived to the age of 94, and at no time could they have been said to live in poverty. When, late in her life, I asked Gertrude if she had ever thought of remarrying, she gave me a funny look and said, “Why on earth would I ever want to take care of another man?”

The object lesson I took away from Gree and Gertrude was that you can think yourself sick and you can think yourself well: positive thinking in fact is very powerful. So is negative thinking. You can convince yourself that you should be afraid, be very afraid, and you can convince yourself that you are or easily could be helpless.

Until my generation a lot of women were socialized to think like this. It was objectively true: most women were not allowed into the workplace and could not earn enough to support themselves. When, in 1966, I went into a bank and applied for an opening in its management training program—the very same kind of job my male classmates in all majors were landing with no problem—I was told the bank didn’t hire women into their management training program, but I’d be great in the secretarial pool.

The feminist movement of the 60s and 70s changed things for all American and European women. Because of it, the world is a different place for women. But in some respects, things haven’t changed so much. Even women of considerable wealth and accomplishment, the likes of Lily Tomlin and Katie Couric, have admitted to bouts of bag-lady syndrome. In the MSN Money article that reveals that gem, Certified Financial Planner Kathy Boyle observes that this widespread fear is not altogether unrealistic:

“Being single costs 80% that of a couple, and women are seven times more likely to be single and live six years longer. . . Given a 50% divorce rate and that the average age of widowhood is 56, there’s probably good reason to be concerned.”

I’ve never succumbed to the symptoms described in this article—refusing to think about finances or feeling unable to make a decision. And I don’t stash all my assets in low-income financial instruments (to the contrary, I’ve taken some breathtaking risks…). But I do worry a lot about money, sometimes to the point of obsessiveness.

Just as you can’t deal with money by pretending it’s not there or it doesn’t matter, so you can’t deal with it by obsessing over it. Best thing to do is get the advice of a trustworthy financial advisor, learn what you can about budgeting and wealth management, make a few basic decisions, and then revisit the issue no more than three or four times a year.

One night as I lay awake worrying over money, shortly after I had divorced my husband and set out on my own, I found myself asking the question, “Can I do this?”

Those are the words that coalesced in my mind, there in the darkness.

Then I heard my great-aunt’s voice, just as clearly as if she were sitting in the room. She said, “Of course you can, my dear.”

So it proved to be.

Ladies. Of course you can!

Image: Mikescottwood11. A chronically homeless individual inhabiting a bus shelter in Porter Square. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.