Most of us understand we need to give careful consideration to planning, saving and preparing for the future. This typically includes planning for the purchase of our first house, saving for the education of our children, mapping out our careers, our retirement, and even our eventual death.
However, I’ve seen too many consumers get to retirement, breathe a sigh of relief and then put their lives on auto-pilot, thinking they’ve handled all the big decisions. The reality is that many times the decisions which will be faced in the years between retirement and death can be some of the most overwhelming, impactful and costly decisions of our lives.
When these things are left to chance, or are assumed it won’t happen to us, we effectively take ourselves out of the driver’s seat and hand over the controls to someone else. If you’ve spent the first 50 or 60 years of your life trying to plan and prepare for what’s ahead, why would you leave the rest of your life to chance?
When you first had children, you likely began saving for their future education. You may have envisioned them attending your alma mater, the local state university and gauged your savings to match the university’s expected costs. However, your children may have had other ideas and while one child attended the local university, it may have been in a five year program instead of four. The other child may have decided that a private university across the country was a better choice, so the costs were significantly higher than anticipated. You suddenly realized that life rarely turns out exactly as planned. While you did the right things by planning and saving early, you needed to make adjustments along the way because of the twists and turns you encountered. You probably also had discussions within your family as college got closer, which helped you realize adjustments might be needed down the road. It was critical to stay attuned to the changing circumstances along the way.
This example may give us some clues as to a more appropriate way to approach later life. We may choose to believe that later life will include a perfectly scheduled and planned retirement, followed by many years of travel and activity.
We plan to age gracefully and finally die one night in our beds after a long and satisfying life. However, the reality of later life may not resemble this imagined future. Some things can be planned for, like anticipating your Medicare start date and the timely research needed to choose a plan. Or it may include receiving guidance on the optimal strategy for initiating Social Security benefits. Unfortunately, some later life occurrences can’t be anticipated, like a life-altering disease or other diagnosis, but there might be preventative things that can be done to reduce the risk or diagnose early for best outcomes.
There may be other issues which are best discussed with your family or an advisor to consider the possibility of the occurrence, contemplate the desired outcomes and then plan for alternatives if the desired choice is unattainable. This might include housing choices, care options and end-of-life options.
The fact that our later life reality may look vastly different should not make us turn a blind eye to it, but rather consider now, while we are healthy and well, how we would prefer to adjust our lives, should a particular twist or turn occur.
Today, while you are active and competent and fully capable of evaluating your options, consider the following questions;
- What are the activities you perform today which help to make your life worthwhile? (this might include golfing, hiking, traveling, or even managing your finances, shopping, or driving)
- Rate yourself today on a scale representing the ease with which you can perform each of these activities.
- Consider the future and where on that scale you might be prompted to give up a particular activity. (You might give up golf when you can’t play nine holes of golf without significant rest; or turn over your bill-pay when you have received late notices for regular bill payment)
- Give thought to what change should occur when you are at a point of giving up an activity and what your preferred outcome would be. (If I can’t manage my own bill-pay anymore, I would prefer that my middle daughter take over but still keep me in the loop)
You live in the mountains of Western NC. When you first retired, this was an ideal spot, which gave you privacy and mountain vistas and a place for the family to gather during the holidays. You and your spouse hiked and golfed frequently, welcomed your children and then grandchildren for summers, breaks and holidays. You have friends in the area and have always gotten together for dinners out, game nights and concerts in the park.
Today, things are a bit quieter. The winters seem longer than they did a few years ago. You have a neighbor who you have contracted with to keep your driveway clear of snow. You still drive down the mountain successfully to attend doctor’s appointments and to shop for groceries. Your children and grandchildren only make it to the mountain house about once a year, due to their busy schedules and geographic diversity.
On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 representing severe difficulty and 10 being total ease) you are at a 6 in your comfort with driving, although you currently try to schedule all the appointments in one day if possible to decrease the number of trips you have to take. You tend not to go out at night if it means going down the mountain, because you are beginning to have difficulty seeing well at night. This is beginning to be an issue for you in terms of isolation because many of your friends get together in the evening for dinners out, or other functions. Most of them live in a neighboring town. In terms of the family retreat aspect of your home, it no longer feels like the gathering place and instead feels a bit lonely.
By considering the triggers for change before a significant issue arises, you can discuss with each other and ultimately, your family, about your preferences for eventual changes. You can investigate well in advance of a need, so you know the community resources available and the realistic options.
You should carefully consider the implications that a major health setback of one spouse can have on the well-being of the other. This can also help keep yourself accountable as to when you envisioned change should occur. It is easy to continue to kick the can down the road as we get closer to an inevitable, undesired change. Talking about and documenting these things when all is well can really help you be better prepared for the changing circumstances of your later life.
Later life requires careful planning and will mean that either you deal proactively with what might be ahead, or deal reactively as events occur in your life. This of course doesn’t guarantee that your future will take the path you prefer, but it does increase the chances that you can remain in better control and have preferred outcomes.
Taking these steps yourself also helps take a huge burden off your family who might be placed in the position of having to force change upon you if you haven’t prepared for it in advance. Don’t put this burden on them. Instead plan for what may be ahead of you in later life and do your best to establish your own guidelines and triggers for change, as well as the desired outcomes.
Plan, prepare and stay in better control of your later life decisions, knowing as the twists and turns occur, you will be better prepared to address the changing course with well thought-out and intentional decisions.