Putting more gold in the golden years

It’s that time of year when the air gets crisp, the San Francisco Giants win the World Series and holiday planning is looming.

It is also the time that many organizations, including Waypoint, are engaged in planning for the upcoming year. During one of our sessions, Annette brought to my attention that my youngest daughter, Genny, will be going off to college in six years and I too would be an empty nester. I admit, it caught me a bit off guard and got me thinking about “the next chapter.”

A few lucky people have a clear vision of what they want to do in their “golden years” and have been eagerly waiting and planning. For others, it is a very difficult transition, as they are frozen by the fear of becoming that bored, drooling old person sitting in the corner of some nursing home.

Most of us are caught somewhere in the middle. Thankfully there is loads of research and many emerging models about how you can take charge of your “golden years” and make them the best years of your life.

The first step is to change the perception that aging equals decline in function or contribution. A little planning and knowledge can go a long way toward making the “golden years” truly golden.

We call this “intelligent aging,” because by taking a few simple steps you can have a huge impact on how the second half plays out.  

A review of research, our experience with clients and our own families, and conversations with several thought leaders has enabled us to identity five keys to “intelligent aging.”  

During peak work and parenting years, creating a social network does not take much effort – it is thrust upon you. But as kids move away and careers wind down, social dynamics often shift very quickly.

It requires some thought and planning to maintain important old friendships and create new ones. If you are in the sandwich generation – those caring for aging parents while also supporting children – and see your parents’ social network breaking down, that should be a red flag. If they are considering moving, consider an active retirement community that will provide easy access to new people through organized activities.   

We have a client in her 70s who has two weekly card games set up with old friends, creating a support network that goes far beyond a few hands of cards. The members provide each other rides to doctors when needed, bring over soup when someone is sick and offer a sounding board on a variety of issues.
While having a good social network is very important, being engaged in activities that help other people has been shown to have tremendous positive impact on physical, emotional and psychological health.   

Helping others is an opportunity to inject meaning, wonder and fun into your life and provides a path to being healthy and happy.

We’ve seen firsthand the positive impact of clients doing seemingly small things like driving for Meals on Wheels once a week, being a reading partner for inner-city school kids or quilting for those injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

Being engaged in philanthropy can go far beyond simply writing checks at the end of the year. It is not only about helping others, it is about taking charge of your own well-being and understanding the positive impacts on the giver not just the receiver.     

Seventy percent of physical aging is determined by lifestyle – the little choices we make every day, according to a 10-year study by the MacArthur Foundation.  

Poor health undermines household happiness. We all know we should eat our veggies and walk every day – no need to rehash that material here – but often the key to changing your lifestyle is to change your mindset. Many of us think we need to “get in shape,” but if we just focus on “being more active,” we can achieve the benefits we are looking for. Little things like taking the stairs, setting up a Saturday morning walk with friends to the coffee shop and parking at the far end of the lot are small steps that yield big results if done consistently.   

Another key component of good health is to be an engaged patient. Taking an active role in your health care has been shown to make a difference in how well treatments work. A passive patient is less likely to get well than an active patient. Always seek a second opinion, do your own research, talk with your friends and don’t miss those annual physicals!  

Whether you are in the sandwich generation, worried about your aging parents or are trying to navigate a major life change, figuring out where to live is often the most difficult issue.  

Many people end up staying in their homes because the thought of moving is overwhelming, it forces them to confront the reality of getting older and they have many preconceived notions about “retirement homes” and “nursing homes.”

We advocate for making an informed choice that is openly discussed and researched far in advance of any need to make a change. And if aging in place is the desired approach, then you need to be realistic and proactive about the progression of services that most will need. See our contributed column “So you want to stay in the family home until you die?” on page 5 for more information on this.

An alternative approach is a Continuing-Care Retirement Community. CCRCs are residential campuses where a number of aging care needs, including independent living, assisted living and nursing home care, may all be met in a single residence.

Typically, elderly candidates move into a CCRC while still living independently, with few health concerns or health care needs. As patrons age and medical needs change, the level of nursing care and service increases proportionally.  

A more progressive approach is “co-housing.” Co-housing is a type of intentional, collaborative housing in which residents actively participate in the design and operation of their neighborhoods.

Co-housing communities are usually designed as attached or single-family homes along a pedestrian street or clustered around a central courtyard and they almost always share a common building, which includes a large dining room and kitchen, lounge, recreational facilities, children’s spaces and, frequently, a guest room, workshop and laundry room.

While many co-housing communities have a variety of family structures and ages, there is an emerging subset of co-housing that is specifically designed for those 50 years and older – senior co-housing.

Let’s face it, the mere thought of communicating with family members around the topic of “aging” creates stress for most of us and, as a result, is often avoided. But based on our experience and some recent studies, there is a disconnect between children and their parents when it comes communicating about aging.  

According to a recent study by Liberty Mutual, 58 percent of sandwich generation children think their parents do not want to talk about aging issues, while only 24 percent of seniors think the conversation would be uncomfortable and 95 percent believe their children have the right to raise the issue.    

That said, effective communication is a skill that needs to be developed, and when combined with added stress of the “aging” topic, should not be taken lightly.

The most important thing to consider is timing. One of the greatest challenges people face is to slow down and find the time to be fully present. It’s a mistake to discuss important issues on the fly, when you’re rushed and preoccupied. If you need to talk about something crucial with your parents, make a conscious effort to put your personal agenda – and your cell phone – aside.

And remember, such issues will take time to resolve – and probably require more than one discussion.

By the time you read this, our annual budget will complete, our long-term business plan will be updated, the Thanksgiving turkey will be ordered and hopefully we’ll all be thinking about the golden years a bit differently. It is an opportunity to help our aging parents maintain their dignity and to take charge of our own lives to maximize the tremendous potential we all have regardless of our age.