What would happen if we began to talk about our own old age? Would our contemplation cause our lives to be damned by the unsightly thoughts that come with thinking about the “what ifs”?
Do people who purchase life insurance, deprive their children of parents in their youth? Do people who buy homeowners insurance bring on the devastating wild fires, draughts, hurricanes and snow storms that plague our planet? Do we really think that we are that powerful? I doubt it.
Rather, if we were to work as a society to acknowledge that there are opportunities, as well as potential pitfalls in later life, we could prepare for both the best and the worst and not have to live in a state of existential anxiety about becoming a burden. What does this really mean?
Traditionally, retirement planning has been about having enough money, so that we don’t outlive our savings and so that we can leave a little something for the next generations. Once again, we place “value” on later life only in the amount of inheritance that we leave to our heirs.
The gift of age can more accurately be valued for the lessons that we have to teach future generations about life, love, overcoming adversity, sharing wisdom, role modeling grace and generosity of spirit. This includes learning how to make the most of even the challenges that come more routinely in later life.
One of the things that elders have been telling me for decades (more than 4!) is that they don’t want to be a burden on their loved ones in later life. This seems to be a widespread wish. Knowing that we cannot always control the nature of our health and function in later life, we must discover what we can do to lessen the potential for creating burden and demonstrating how to take control of those things that are truly within our abilities.
One step to take in this direction is to realize that despite our desire for autonomy and independence that we would be better served if we understood that modern life is about interdependence. Though we don’t realize it in our daily lives, we are increasingly dependent on others for both the basic sustenance of life, as well as for the luxuries that make life comfortable and interesting. This is even truer, when we may need to rely on others for help with daily necessities. So let’s use our new found longevity to plan for interdependence in a way that makes us comfortable and that can take some of the fears and unknowns off of the shoulders of our loved ones.
Here is a checklist of things that each person can do to facilitate a more positive and authentic experience in later life. Most of these items are also efficient economically and provide a road map of care for our families.
- Plan for a lifestyle that fits your financial capabilities. Reduce or eliminate debt, know the true cost of maintaining your home and your lifestyle.
- Have a financial power of attorney that is legally sound and up to date. Make certain that the person you choose to act on your behalf understands your priorities and will be able to follow them. This person is not always a child, who may have needs and motives of their own.
- Have a Health Care Surrogate who can make decisions for you should you be unable to speak for yourself. This person may need to act on your behalf temporarily or for the remainder of your life. So this person also needs to be someone with whom you can discuss your desires for where and how you wish to receive care and about whether or not you will want life sustaining treatments, especially at end of life. Having these conversations with your family and your doctor are also important to avoid conflicts at the time of need.
- Make your own pre-need funeral arrangements. This will also assure that 1) you lock in your costs at today’s prices; 2) you get the type of care and services that you want for yourself consistent with your beliefs and values; and 3) that you spare your loved ones decisions that they may not be in a position to make during a time of grief. Funeral arrangements can usually be paid over time without interest charges.
- If you can afford it, purchase some form of long term care insurance. Because many chronic illnesses can last for many years during which you may need care, it is important to think about how to fund these needs. This is especially true if there is a history of chronic illness in your family, such as dementing illnesses, congestive heart failure, Parkinson’s disease, COPD, diabetes, MS and the like. Newer policies tend to be a combination of life or disability insurance and long term care. You can create several income streams that are designated for long term care by using different financial planning vehicles.
- Talk to your attorney to determine if you need a trust to hold your assets. Inheritance and tax laws change regularly, so it is important to keep up with both federal and state issues with your elderlaw attorney and/or your estate planning attorney.
- Plan for the lifestyle that you desire. This means working with your partner or social circle to discover those areas in which you may want to pursue activities together, as well as those activities that you wish to engage in with others. We must all remember that we can’t just retire from something, we need to retire to something. We need to have plans and activities that enable us to feel fulfillment, productive and meaningfully engaged in our lives after work.
- Remember to think about your special interests, your “bucket list” or those creative endeavors that you have always wanted to make time to do. It is important to have goals that keep us engaged with life, with others and enable us to keep growing.
- Think about and plan for continued socialization. One of the many losses that comes with great age is the likelihood of outliving contemporaries. This makes it important to think about having opportunities to spend time with people of all ages. Nothing will replace the losses of long time relationships, but isolation can be avoided if opportunities are tied to interests and not ages.
- Envision yourself as an elder! Create a sense of yourself, your surroundings, your activities, the people with whom you wish to spend time and what will be meaningful to you, even if you have some physical limitations. Think about where you will find joy and look for opportunities to bring those people and things into your life on a renewing basis.
- Create FUN! Remember that fun, laughter and enjoyment are essential to life. Surround yourself with people who lift your mood and allow you to see the lighter side of life.
- Explore your spiritual needs. It doesn’t matter what your background is or whether or not you are involved with a spiritual community. It is important that you feel centered and grounded in your place in the world and your sense of self.
- Pass it forward. Create opportunities to pass along your knowledge, wisdom, love & grace.
Plan well to live well. Denial not needed.