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Hortie Gutmann typing on a computer.

Hortie with daughter Judith Strohl and son Stephen Gutmann.

by Sally Herships

Marketplace contributor

Hortense Gutmann lives in Westchester, N.Y. She has kids, grandkids and even great grandkids who lovingly refer to her as Hortie. She's what you might call a woman of a certain age.

"How old are you?," I ask her.

"I don't know. I don't count anymore," Hortie tells me, turning to her daughter Judy for help.

"Judy, do you know how old I am?"

"You're 102," Judy says.

"Oh, that's interesting," she replies.

Judy, who's visiting from out of state, Hortie's son Steve, and his wife, are listening in on our interview, and laugh at Hortie's response.

Hortie lives in the Sarah Neuman nursing home. The day I visit there's a concert on the first floor. It's sunny, and there are movie posters on the walls of Cary Grant and Bette Davis. Hortie has been living here for almost five years. She has a roommate. But before she moved in, at 98, she lived on her own for 30 years. She worked until her 70th birthday.

"And I made no move to retire. But the next month they said, 'You know, you're not on the payroll anymore,'" Hortie says. "So that was my introduction to retirement."

A new generation of retirees

Now her daughter Judy is retired. She's 69. And she tells me she's followed all the rules for preparing for old age. She's got Social Security and a pension.

"So far it's worked out OK, but if I live to be 100, I don't know what the future holds," Judy says.

The reason Judy's uncertain is because of what her mother went through. Hortie's son, Steve, says his mom followed all the rules as well as she could. Hortie was widowed when she was 40, with two young kids. And options like long-term care insurance didn't exist back then. Steve says a lot of long-term care policies that exist today have a limited duration.

"That policy's only good for a few years," Steve says. "So even if one prepares by having such a policy, if you're lucky like my mom, you can outlive the policy."

It turns out that Hortie was lucky and unlucky at the same time. Most people would agree that you're lucky if you live for a century. And Hortie's family feels fortunate to still have her, but there is a downside.

"As people get older, they need to have help in the house," Steve says. "It's harder to prepare for those things until it's too late."

"She couldn't walk, that was the problem," Judy says. "She was starting to lose her ability to walk."

That's Steve's wife, also Judy. She says eventually Hortie needed help going shopping, even to visit the doctor across the street.

"If they were a Victorian family, then grandma could be in the house, and she'd be taken care of," Steve says. "But that's not the way people live today."

"Someone slept at the house with her. Do you remember what that woman was paid?" Judy asks.

"It was a lot of money," Steve says.

It turns out to have been about $20,000 a year.

Preparing for old age

It wasn't that Hortie was unprepared for old age; she'd saved and had a small pension from her job. But the older she got the higher the cost of help became. Eventually, round-the-clock care was costing her $30,000 a year. It was just too much.

"Well, very frankly, Hortie ran out of money when she was 98," Steve says.

Steve says she had to apply for Medicaid, which felt like applying for welfare.

In the end, turning 100 cost Hortie Gutmann every cent she'd saved. And in a way she got lucky again because now the government picks up most of the tab for her. So she's able to enjoy a life that costs her hardly anything. I asked her what's left on her budget.

"Well, really very little," Hortie says.

"How about clothing?" Judy asks.

"What honey?" Hortie asks.

"We do buy new clothing for you," Judy says.

"Well, yes, you do. And they do it very well, thank you," Hortie says. "I can say, 'I need blah, blah, blah.' And I get blah, blah, blah. Now that's a very good arrangement for me."

It's unusual for people to live to be 100. But I told Hortie experts think most kids today will make it to that age. So, did she have any advice for them? How much should they save?

"Depends on your tastes, kids," Hortie says.

Hortie with daughter Judith Strohl and son Stephen Gutmann.

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