4 Ways Retirees Can Enrich Their Life (And the Lives of Others)

We have the skills and the time, and the need for our help has never been greater.

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For the first time in generations, living standards for today's parents and grandparents are expected to be better than for their offspring. And many retirees are absolutely better off than the millions of Americans who are losing their jobs and homes. While depleted retirement funds are affecting investors of all ages, Social Security and Medicare continue to provide dependable safety nets. Falling home prices? Yes, they're awful but no cause for current alarm for the many seniors who own their homes, don't plan to move, and have no mortgage payments to make.

For many retirees, the wolf is being kept from the door, even if only temporarily. Yet there is little comfort when stories abound about families forced to live in motels, and the economy seems to be performing daily death spirals. With the futures of many younger people looking bleak (perhaps including their own family members) here are four things retirees can do to make things better for themselves and others.

1. Get Out of the House. Spring is at hand, so clean out the cobwebs and engage yourself in an endeavor that's not about you. With experience, skills, and time, retirees make fabulous volunteers. And the need for help has never been greater. If your body and brain are still on speaking terms, put them to work helping other people. The activity is good for body and spirit, and beats timing your dinner each night to Wheel of Fortune commercial breaks (not that Wheelers need be apologetic; when my wife asks me what I want for dinner, I occasionally request a vowel.) Food banks, neighborhood schools, area non-profits, and other community programs need your help. Become a volunteer; better yet, mentor someone who faces challenges you've already overcome.

2. Make Your Voice Heard. Is it too dramatic to say that society is at an inflection point? I don't think so. Leaders face enormous challenges and they can benefit from your experience and perspective. It's too easy to dump retirees and their interests into a convenient container and assume they are no longer engaged in society's major issues and challenges. At neighborhood, city/county, state and national levels, there are opportunities for you to make a difference. Government and business, stung by regulatory and market failures, will be held to new standards of transparency and access. Help let the sunshine in.

3. Make Better Lifestyle Choices. I just wrote about online life expectancy calculators and was struck by the fact that 70 percent of our longevity is determined by our lifestyle choices. Only 30 percent is related to genetics and family history. It is not too late for you to begin making better diet and exercise decisions, to watch how much alcohol you consume, and to live a safer life. You don't need a degree or more money to do these things. Health-care costs are eating away at our economy, and now account for one-sixth of all economic activity. That's up 10 percentage points in about a generation. Viewed another way, that's $1.4 trillion of money we spend each year on health care that otherwise would be available to meet other needs. And the kicker, of course, is that we're not buying longer lives with that money. Much of this spending could be avoided if we just took better care of ourselves.

4. Open Your Homes. If you are fortunate enough to own your own home and have some extra space, consider providing someone else a place to live. Multi-generational living arrangements are on the rise as families look for ways to save money. If you don't have family members who need help, there are students and others for whom a place to stay is literally a lifesaver. Sure, it can be risky. But there are lots of agencies that will provide reference checks and help to ease the natural concerns you might have about letting a stranger share your home.