“We have a longevity paradox. Now that we have achieved what humankind has tried to achieve since it has walked – living longer – we really don’t have a good idea of what to do with all that additional time.”
– Dr. Joe Coughlin, Director of the MIT AgeLab
The AgeLab was established at MIT in 1999 as a multidisciplinary research program that works with business to improve the quality of life of older people and those who care for them. The AgeLab applies consumer-centered thinking to understand the challenges and opportunities of longevity and emerging generational lifestyles to encourage innovation across business markets. Their insights are critical for anyone who is nearing retirement, or who has loved ones such as parents, aunts, or uncles who are entering this stage of life. This article in our series discusses the “Big Decision” phase and reveals what light bulbs, ice cream cones, and lunch dates have in common.
The Big Decision Phase of Retirement
As we discussed in our last article, the folks at the MIT AgeLab have proposed a new name for the “retirement years,” the stage of life that begins roughly at age 66 and extends for 25 or more years through the end of life. According to the AgeLab, these years should be named the “Exploring” phase of our lives, as opposed to “retirement.”
In their model for aging, the AgeLab also suggests that there are four distinct phases that people experience as they live through their “Exploring” years. The first of these is the “Honeymoon” phase, named because it marks the period of time when this whole idea of exploring our freedom is brand new to us. But, there are also a number of adjustments that must be made as we acclimate to the changes in our lives.
The next stage is called the “Big Decision” stage because this is a time when people have a lot of “free” time, but they are also faced with a number of very important decisions that may impact their quality of life for the rest of their lives. This phase takes shape as work truly fades from view. While our health status may be less vibrant than before, the second retirement phase does provide us with greater opportunity to make or renew social connections, as we have more time for socializing and travel. We may even replace our work with increased volunteering, grandparenting, travel plans, or hobbies.
While this newfound “free time” is liberating, and presents many options for how to spend our time, it also requires us to make decisions about how to structure our lives to best take advantage of that time.
The Biggest Decision: Where Will We Live?
The second retirement phase confronts us with tactical questions about our living arrangements. Among the questions we must face are:
- Should we stay in our hometown or move somewhere warmer?
- Will life be easier if we downsize? Do we prefer a city or the suburbs?
- Should we move in with a family member? How important is proximity to our family?
- Do we need to make our existing home more “aging friendly”?
Then there is the cost factor, and the concern for how to afford our current lifestyle for the long term, depending upon our housing choice. For many, concerns about the cost of home maintenance, proximity to family, access to services, and liveability of their existing home (such as having a master bedroom and other necessities on the first floor when stairs are no longer manageable) are reason enough to leave the house, the town, or even the state. In fact, 37 percent of baby boomers say they plan to move from their current home.
3 Key Questions
MIT AgeLab has identified three simple questions we should ask ourselves to assess how prepared we are to live well in retirement. These questions uncover important factors that will determine our future quality of life, and they can serve as a starting point for planning a satisfying retirement. When it comes to retirement planning, we’re often inclined to focus on accumulating assets and making sure we spend our money wisely. But while our biggest fear may be outliving our wealth, there’s an even greater risk of:
- Losing our independence due to ailing health;
- Being unable to access the big and small things that make us happy;
- Facing a decline in the number of friends in our social network.
Decisions about our living arrangements are likely to impact all three of these considerations, and each of these areas should be taken into account when making decisions about where we will live. The three simple questions that can help us better understand these issues are as follows below.
Who Will Change My Light Bulbs?
This question sounds mundane and simple enough, but is it? If your father is 85 – even if he is in good shape – do you want him on a ladder changing light bulbs? How about your mom living alone and maintaining her home well into her eighth and ninth decade? Given that the baby boomers have fewer children and have the highest divorce rates in history, help at home may be in short supply.
Now think about your own retirement years. Changing light bulbs is more than an issue of long-term home maintenance. It is a question that asks, “Do I have a plan for how I will maintain my home?” When younger, most of us take for granted our ability to do daily house cleaning, maintenance, and basic repairs – even home modifications. However, identifying the costs as well as the trusted service providers necessary to maintain our home may be as critical to aging independently.
Can I Get an Ice Cream Cone?
Imagine it is a hot summer night – a perfect night for getting an ice cream cone, preferably chocolate. No matter how wealthy we may be, quality of life is mostly about being able to easily and routinely access those little experiences that bring a smile. While getting an ice cream cone when you want it is not a financial strain for most, the capacity to have that cone on demand does raise questions such as, “Do I have adequate transportation to go where I want when I want?” If driving is no longer possible, “Are there seamless alternatives that enable me to make the trips that I want – not just those I need?” Moreover, “Will I age in a community where there are ample activities and people to keep me engaged, active, and having fun?”
Who is My Lunch Date?
Lunch is more than a meal – it’s an occasion. Who you have lunch with may be a good indicator of your social network. This is not the social network of “friends” you have online, but friends you see on a regular basis – people who help reinforce a healthy and active lifestyle, and who you (and your significant other) can depend on.
Even with adequate finances, living alone without a robust circle of social support can threaten healthy aging. Today, more than 40 percent of women over 65 years old live alone in the United States. Consequently, planning where, and with whom, to retire may be as important as how much it will cost. For example, a home in the mountains may be alluring as you approach retirement, but it may lead to an inadequate network of friends, or complete isolation during old age. The baby boomers are facing a different retirement than their parents. They’re more likely to live alone, to have fewer children, and to live in suburban and rural locations that may not provide easy access to active and liveable communities.
Maintaining our mobility and independence, our continued access to the “small pleasures” of life, and our connection to a vibrant social network are all important elements of a fulfilling retirement. Planning for these contingencies is an integral part of preparing to live a longer, better, and more satisfying life. Your living arrangements are a big part of this preparation, and these three simple questions may help you to make the “Big Decisions” about your living arrangements in the most effective way possible.