In our dreams, perhaps, we may imagine that we live to a ripe old age, suffer few illnesses along the way, and end our lives with loved ones at our side after a brief and painless decline. That's not how most lives really end, of course. And with millions of us looking at lifespans that will take us well into our 90s, it's important to recognize that the odds of living "the good life" are much greater for those who have a workable plan for meeting their old-age health and financial needs.
While having enough money is important to achieving comfort in old age, it's not the end-all requirement. What's needed even more than financial resources is a willingness to deal realistically with what old age really means. As aging experts and older people themselves know all too well, even the most successful long life includes emotional, physical, and financial stresses and reversals. Leading the list, in no particular order:
1. Upwards of 70 percent of older Americans will need extended and potentially costly long-term care help at least once during their remaining lives.
2. Healthier seniors may extend their lives with good diet, exercise, and lifestyle habits. But these longer lives will cause their healthcare costs to rise, not fall.
3. Women continue to live longer than men and require tailored long-term plans to deal with their financial and healthcare needs. The flipside of this good longevity news for women is that they often have lower retirement incomes than men and are more likely to be poor in old age. And in recognition of their longer life spans, Genworth Financial, the largest seller of long-term care insurance, is raising insurance rates for women.
4. Older Americans are less and less likely to find family members to help care for them. Family structures have weakened and children often do not live near their parents. More seniors are living alone than ever before.
Many of us have responded to these and other concerns about older age with denial, according to a survey that Genworth sponsored and recently released. Due to fears and anxiety about an old age they cannot control, many aging Americans do nothing. Money also can be a barrier to planning. Because long-term care may be costly, people often decide they cannot afford to fund their future care needs and do nothing to plan for those needs.
Overcoming this inertia is not easy, but it can be done, says New York psychologist Barbara Nusbaum, a Genworth adviser. "I think the anxiety about aging and what our lives are going to be like is a huge barrier to planning for older age," she says.
"Anxiety is a terrible feeling and we all want to avoid it," she explains. "When we think about aging, one of the big anxieties that comes up is our fear of death. But it's almost more frightening to think of our long-term aging than our death ... We don't want to think about getting old, we don't want to think about not being the center of our family, and we don't want to think about dementia."
Nusbaum's advice to deal with such inertia includes two sets of components that can turn anxiety and fear from being emotions of denial into motivators for changed behaviors. The first is to turn the classic "fight or flight" approach to stress into a "fight, flight, or affiliate" process that seeks emotionally supportive partners in making what are clearly hard and perhaps unpleasant decisions.
"People should reach into themselves and find a personal experience [about aging and care] that resonates with them. It could be a parent, a grandparent, or a good friend" who has experienced older-age health and care issues. Making a personal and emotional connection "breaks through the denial," Nusbaum advises. "We all know what we should do that is good for ourselves," she explains, "but intellectually, this recognition doesn't move us. It has to be a personal and emotional connection."
Her second piece of advice is to urge people to confront their fears about what bothers them about old age, and to include in this process their hopes for the best outcome they wish to achieve. "If people can talk about what some of their biggest fears are, then they also can talk about their wished-for scenario as opposed to just their feared scenario."
Creating a very personalized scenario for a good outcome in later life can serve as the foundation for building a plan to achieve that outcome. If people can work their way to this stage, the largely negative encounter with their future aging can be altered into a more positive search for life-enhancing ways to achieve their personal goals.