Over the span of my career I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with thousands of Canadians about their retirement years. For many, this period of their lives lasts about 20-30 years—sometimes longer!—and what I have noted is that people usually have big plans for their first few years of retirement. Traveling more is the number one thing people say they are going to do. Other common early retirement plans include volunteering, pursuing a hobby or activity they haven’t had time for in the past, spending more time with their family, and even working part-time.
When people are actually in their early retirement years, I’ve also found that they begin to proactively make end of life plans. This may include creating a Will and Advance Directives and making funeral arrangements. Often I hear people say they plan ahead so they can ensure their wishes are carried out or because they want to make things easier on their family.
What’s struck me as interesting is that there is a notable stage of life that is left out of the planning process for many seniors: our later years, bookended by early retirement and end of life. And these later years can last for a very long time! There is no set age when our later years begin, but for many people it is after the age of 80. This is when it is common to experience some mobility or health changes that begin to impact our current lifestyle. I believe there are some of the major reasons people don’t plan for this stage of life. At first blush, it may sound scary or very unpleasant to think of changes in our mobility or health—yet, with a bit of planning, these years can be some of our richest and most interesting.
Think of it this way: can you imagine sitting at an outdoor concert on a hot summer day wearing your warmest winter coat? Likely you’d be miserable! The reason you aren’t wearing winter clothing in the middle of summer is that you adapt and change with the weather so you remain comfortable. You planned for this weather by buying the appropriate clothes ahead of time. Similarly, we need to adapt to the chapters of our retirement and plan ahead of time in order to have the quality of life we want forever.
Clearly, we don’t always know what changes might occur in our later stages of life, but we need to have a plan in place in case changes do occur. That is how we stay in the driver’s seat of our lives: by realistically planning for changes we aren’t sure will ever occur, then being willing to implement those plans if needed.
Following are some questions we can ask ourselves to help with this planning:
Living where I am now, if there were a shift in my health or mobility, or the health or mobility of someone I love (spouse/partner, for example), would…
1) It be easy to get together with friends, or might it potentially be isolating?
2) I be able to continue to easily grocery shop, cook for myself and do day-to-day chores?
3) I be able to maintain my home, or would household responsibilities likely take up most of my time and energy?
4) I need to be able to drive in order to maintain my lifestyle?
5) I be able to easily continue to engage in activities I enjoy?
The good news is that if you realize your current housing and lifestyle would not provide the quality of life you want in your later years, there are options. People often choose retirement living because it allows them to continue to spend time with friends, engage in activities they enjoy, and have independence and privacy—all while be freed from many of the responsibilities of maintaining their own home. On the downside, many people stay in their own home and endure a reduced quality of life for years before moving into retirement living because they haven’t given thought to this chapter of their retirement and haven’t adapted their lifestyle and housing to their changing needs.
Choice, control and independence are things we all want for our entire life. Planning for and adapting in our later years can help ensure we get them—as well as adventures, fun and a life of continued meaning.
Dr. Amy is a certified senior advisor, Vice President of the International Federation on Aging, and Co-Founder of the Essential Conversations Project. As a gerontological social worker, she has over thirty years of experience working with older adults and their families.