We often hear that a large group of Canadians don’t have their retirement finances figured out. So those who do have their budgets and savings in order, may believe their aging plan is finished. But too often retirement plans either don’t contain enough specifics about what to do with one’s time and money, or haven’t taken into account all of the transitions that take place in aging, let alone backup plans.
“People fantasize about retirement,” says Luanne Whitmarsh, CEO of the Kerby Centre, a local non-profit that provides programs and support for seniors. “They don’t plan for the ‘what ifs’ – what if I get sick, what if my partner gets sick. And there’s a [feeling of] depression that sets in if things don’t pan out.”
Whitmarsh advises people to think about changes that may come with aging that would put some of their plans out of reach and consider how to adapt. For example, what are the destinations you can still travel to if your health or mobility change, or if you can no longer drive? Candace Konnert, the head of the University of Calgary’s Healthy Aging Lab, agrees. “Many people really don’t ever think about their own aging and are really taken aback by the changes that they are experiencing,” says Konnert. “People want to stay autonomous, they want to stay independent. To do that, they have to have a vision for how they want to age, what’s important to them, what their priorities are and how they are going to negotiate certain transitions in their life.”
Konnert spent many years working as a clinical psychologist with older people and families and saw first-hand what can happen when people don’t think about the what ifs of aging, such as what if they can no longer get their own groceries, or what if their friends and neighbours move away. “They were always in crisis mode,” she says of the clients she used to see who were often forced into nursing homes after a health problem. “What I’m trying to do now is to get people to think about the future so that they can make good choices and plan ahead.”
Konnert says that means giving sober thought to the transitions that come with aging and making choices ahead of time, instead of denying that aging means change. “It’s really about adaptation, selection and compensatory strategies,” she says. “You have to be more selective in what you choose to do. It may involve changing your goals a little bit and also thinking about, ‘Well, if I can’t do this, what can I do that will still give me a sense of being fulfilled and a sense of meaning and purpose?'”
Many people are worried about losing their independence as they age – often specifically associated with losing their drivers license or no longer being able to live in their own home. Some age-related changes are inevitable. We all eventually have a slower reaction time, move slower and can’t see as far, and these changes may affect how and where we can live and get around. But Konnert says maintaining a feeling of independence is less about where you live than it is about your ability to make choices for yourself. For example, choosing to stop driving and making a plan for how to get around may reinforce a feeling of independence rather than waiting for your license to be revoked, or worse, getting in an accident.
And some planning may actually help stave off the effects of aging and allow people to live independently for longer. Seniors who gets help to do their grocery shopping or house maintenance may be less likely to have a fall, for example, meaning they can stay in their home longer.
According to Konnert, strategies can involve everything from getting help around the house or for transportation, to creating new social networks, to changing where you live or changing how you think about those transitions. “There are many different ways you can exert those compensatory strategies and it might involve thinking about things differently,” says Konnert.
From Whitmarsh’s perspective, the first step is overcoming our fear of aging and giving older adults more voice. “We need to empower people to talk about their needs,” says Whitmarsh, and that starts with admitting that we all age.
5 questions to ask about aging
Whether these are questions you ask your parents, your spouse or yourself, they should help spark a conversation.
1. What do you want to do with your time in early retirement and in later retirement?
2. What alternate plans might make you happy if your health or mobility is affected?
3. What is most important to you about where you want to live as you age? (For example, think about the community and the type of home. Is it a single-family or a group-living situation?)
4. What strategies will help you live in your preferred space if other parts of your plan don’t work? (For example, if your health, mobility, finances or those of your spouse deteriorate.)
5. What is most important to you when it comes to living with autonomy and dignity, and what strategies can you put in place to help maintain those things?
The Healthy Aging Lab at the University of Calgary is undertaking a “Planning for the Future” study that will look at what people are doing to plan for aging. If you’re 50 or older and are interested in taking part, go to psych.ucalgary.ca/healthyaging.