Financial preparedness: the ultimate caregiving issue

Plan Ahead book cover

By Jane Elder Wulff

When the time comes to face the major transitions of later life, questions of housing and health care tend to dominate the discussion. Vancouver resident Walter Sonksen learned the hard way how these and all other such decisions are bound up with financial preparedness.

Walt’s father died in mid-life without having made a will. “In the end,” Walt writes in his recently published handbook for caregivers, “our family was bled of hundreds of thousands of dollars and the futures of me, my sister and my mother, and our future families went down a different road than my dad would have wanted for us.”

But there’s much more to being prepared than just making a will. In Walt’s book, entitled “PLANAHEAD: Tools for the Caregiver,” the longest chapter covers questions of finance. The entire book shows how these questions are connected to all the others.

Whether we see this time coming or suddenly find ourselves in crisis, each of us could one day be a caregiver, a concerned friend or family member, a person needing care. Whether or not we feel prepared, to some extent everyone is caught unaware.

“The map is what’s missing,” Walt says. His book provides a complete overview — a way to ensure preparedness, or to check whatever preparations one may have made. Designed to be informative as well as a practical guide and workbook, it’s thorough, detailed, yet easy to follow from beginning to end. It stays focused on the basics, with no wasted words and nothing left out.

“People are motivated,” Walt told me, “but it’s hard to get the whole picture ahead of time. This book lets you look at it the way a general looks at the field before a battle. The soldier in the midst of it doesn’t have that luxury.”

I faced this challenge with my own parents, then with two dear neighbors one after the other. In ten years of writing life stories of Clark County residents for The Messenger, I’ve watched people face it in many different ways.

We want to be prepared. Have we thought of everything? Do we even know what questions to ask? This stuff is hard to talk about. Where do we begin?

This book can help.

Learning from experience

Walt Sonksen, 71, is a born planner. Every job he ever did involved planning, assessing needs and making sure they were filled. The fact that several personal choice points turned out otherwise than he intended has made him, if anything, even more determined to plan ahead.

“I was raised to be self-reliant, take charge, be responsible,” he says. “The lesson of my experience is that maybe we have a destiny we can’t avoid. Still, my actions changed some things, gave me some degree of control and self-confidence no matter what happened.”

Walt grew up in sunny southern California, surfing, going to college, marrying young. His biology major was meant to launch a career in health care, but instead he took a full-       time job in Santa Monica’s aerospace industry to support his wife through school. Switching to part-time studies triggered his draft notice. The year was 1965.

“I didn’t want any part of ground combat in Vietnam, so I enlisted in the Navy,” he says. “My dad was a Navy veteran. I even took a special class for jobs that could only be done on a ship. Turns out they had other plans for me.”

Walt was assigned to a World War II-vintage amphibious landing craft – “basically a waterborne truck” – and spent his final year of service navigating Vietnamese rivers, delivering cargo to Marines up in the jungles from the port of Da Nang. He saw combat in that city during the Tet Offensive.

His job was waiting when he came home to Santa Monica in 1968. Daughter Heidi’s birth the following year was covered by his company health plan – a form of preparedness that Walt considers essential.

“At that time companies were required by law to give returning veterans their old jobs back,” Walt says. “It may not pay much, but it’s a job guarantee. I think we should still do that. These guys have wonderful skills. They won’t turn away from a problem – they’re trained to see it through.”

Using the GI Bill to get his Real Estate license, he went to work for a broker in Orange County, a hot spot at the time. Business was good, and he expanded into partnership with a highly successful restaurant developer to build a new restaurant in Walnut Creek, of which he was manager.

His son John was born in 1974. The restaurant partnership eventually failed due to a another site manager’s misbehavior, and Walt’s family relocated to Oregon, where his wife had friends. The Real Estate business was less favorable there, and Walt moved on to other positions in restaurant management, personal development seminars, electronics, energy and commodities – all planning-related in some way.

Meanwhile, his marriage ended, his kids grew up, and for reasons beyond his control, his enterprises came to naught. Large companies folded, self-help trends withered, high-flyers crashed and burned. Walt might have felt like the last man standing, but something told him he wasn’t done.

Being prepared

PLANAHEAD was born ten years ago from discussions with family care professionals. In researching their clients’ Real Estate needs, Walt discovered a need that was even more critical. He wrote his handbook, as he explains in an author’s note, “after seeing how many people were not prepared with the necessary plans or information to handle serious life transitions. Not being prepared usually leads to many problems that could have been prevented with a little homework.”

His book is essentially a lesson plan, delivered in a compassionate voice. His own family’s experience strongly reinforced his drive to share his message, and informed his sense of empathy for people facing these questions.

Economic data provided further motivation. For example, a recent employee survey by the global microchip company, Intel (with 16,000 workers at its Hillsboro site alone), found that a third of them spend some portion of unpaid time caring for elders.

An AARP study estimates that in economic terms, family caregiving is worth $350 billion a year in this country, with a loss to businesses of $33 billion. “This was all right up my alley,” Walt says. “I became obsessed. I  couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking, how can I convince employers to save all this money?”

His long-term strategy is to work in partnership with businesses to offer the book as an employee benefit. “In the right age group, late 20s to late 50s,” says Walt, who has done the math, “that’s a minimum of 60 million people. My goal is to reach 100 million people who are caregivers now or will be in the future.”

People tell him he’s on a mission, a charge he does not deny. “I’ve resurrected myself over and over,” he says. “Survival of the fittest, that’s me. I am the person this book is written for. I’m into results.”

For more information, contact or check the website. Print copies are available from Amazon (traditional or spiral binding, cover price $19.95). PLANAHEAD is also available in e-book versions.

Jane Elder Wulff is a regular contributor to The Messenger.