“We did it!” my colleague Dan exclaimed with a smile. We had not seen each other during the two-year COVID-19 interlude, so I felt like I was catching up in the middle of conversation I had long forgotten.
“Did what?” I asked.
He quickly answered, with a hint of pride in his voice, “We put our names on three waiting lists.”
Still a bit confused, the only waiting lists that came to my mind were daycare slots for recently born tots or college waiting lists for anxious teens. My mind raced to catch up.
Dan could see the lost look in my eyes. Somewhat exasperated he blurted out, “Senior housing!” Dan quickly went on, “We were unsure of what we would exactly want and when, we put our names on the waiting list of three places, one nearby, one down South, and one on the coast.” Pausing for a moment, he energetically added, “You can’t be too prepared!”
Today, retirement, both the life stage and the business of advice that supports it, rests on one word — “plan.” Words matter. While nuanced, the difference between a retirement “plan” and being retirement “prepared” is more than rhetoric. The word plan is a noun — it’s a thing. We can make a plan, stick to a plan, and, sometime in the future, execute on a plan, but a plan alone does not prepare you for retirement.
Plan vs. prepare
A shopping list, for example, is a plan. Food items can be listed and future recipes richly imagined, but if I don’t go to the store, put the food on my shelf, I am not going to be dining anytime soon. A retirement plan, like a shopping list, is an intention — certainly a necessary first step to living in retirement, but not a complete one. A retirement plan is key to ensuring financial security, but it leaves how one might actually live in retirement to chance. Money, much like electricity, is required for nearly everything, but both money and electricity are enablers, not the actual places, goods, and services that are critical to living well. Effectively, planning is necessary but insufficient, it leaves the actual preparation for our retirement years unfinished.
In contrast to the word plan, ‘prepare’ is a verb — it is about taking action. Preparing for longevity entails identifying, and as much as possible, putting into place the preferences, things, people, and services that will be necessary to live well in retirement. Think of it as longevity preparedness — the conscious envisioning and solving for the many and diverse challenges that we will face in older age.
MIT AgeLab studies indicate that when asked to identify their goals in retirement, people tend to paint an imagined future most often seen on retirement brochures. A future life characterized with sunny ambiguity that includes travel and grandchildren typically showing little acknowledgment of the choices and changes ahead. Rather than leaving retirement, nearly one-third of adult life, to chance — longevity preparedness requires addressing not just our goals in retirement, but the practical questions of how you might actually live in retirement. For example, where to live in retirement?
According to AARP, most people 50-plus would like to age in place, that is stay in the home they live in today. Unfortunately, nearly half of them also indicate they do not believe they will be able to do so. A 2019 survey of Houzz users showed that 85% of those investing in home remodeling were baby boomers and older members of Generation X. Innovative services are now emerging to help people prepare for aging at home. Lowe’s Home Improvement, in collaboration with AARP, has launched Lowe’s Livable Home to offer not just products and services to enable aging-in-place, but education to inform customers what might be necessary to prepare for the ability to do so. A longevity preparedness approach to retirement transforms the desire for, and investment in, a home makeover into an opportunity to improve the capacity to age-in-place.
Lori’s husband Dave is nine years older than she. Over the years they have enjoyed vacationing on the Gulf Coast of Florida to escape dark and cold New England winters. Nearing retirement, Dave is eager to relocate to one of their favorite coastal getaways. Finances are not a problem, but Lori is just not sure they are prepared to move. While Lori is equally excited about the idea of Florida, she is worried that as Dave, a diabetic, ages he may require more care than she can provide alone.
“It just makes me nervous,” Lori told me. “Moving to Florida is great and all, but it would mean having fewer friends nearby if I need help.”
The couple came to an agreement. Lori and Dave will rent a home in their favorite coastal town — not just to vacation in the few years before retirement but to begin putting down roots — to make a conscious effort to meet new people and to find a range of activities that they can enjoy that go beyond their typical vacation experiences focused on sun and sand.
Dan and his wife registering on senior housing waiting lists years in advance sounds extreme. Perhaps. However, actually identifying the what, where, how, and who will improve the probability of a healthy and happy old age is truly being prepared for retirement. Even if finances are well planned, without adequate preparation, waiting until foreseeable events and needs present in older age is likely to result in costly and less desired outcomes.
Preparing for older age is no less complex, in fact it may be more so, than preparing for earlier life stages. Identifying people and activities to ensure social well-being and engagement, trusted home service providers, possible transportation alternatives, caregiving support, and much more are all critical to well-being in retirement.
Most of us prepared for college, prepared for our careers, prepared (as best we could) for parenthood — why should retirement be different than any other life stage? Words and actions matter. Are you prepared for retirement or just planning for it?