Aging Alone

Kristine Hayes

MY MATERNAL grandmother just celebrated her 100th birthday. She still lives a mostly independent life, residing in her own apartment within a senior living facility. She walks to the dining room three times a day for her meals, does her own laundry and is always willing to talk about current events.

At age 54, I often try to imagine what it’ll be like if I live to the same age as my grandmother. The process usually overwhelms me with angst. Will I have enough money to support myself if the retirement phase of my life exceeds the number of years I’ve been actively employed? Will I be mentally and physically capable of caring for myself in my 90s or later? Who will I rely on for care if I live to be a centenarian?

Adding to my anxiety is the fact that I chose not to raise children. I’m not alone in that decision. According to 2010 census data, 19% of my female Gen X cohorts also chose to remain childless. I recently heard the term elder orphan, a euphemism applied to elderly adults who don’t have children or spouses to help them with caregiving as they age. The number of elder orphans is expected to increase sharply over the next few decades as life expectancy rates continue to rise.

My husband—who is 13 years older than me—may be able to depend on me for some of his caregiving needs as he ages. But if I live into my 90s, it’s likely I’ll need to rely on people outside of my family for assistance. Even though I haven’t yet reached retirement age, I’ve already begun the process of preparing to live independently for as long as I can. I’ve recognized three pillars I consider important for a well-rounded retirement: physical health, mental acuity and financial stability. With retirement looming, I’ve already established ways to meet those needs.

Two years ago, my husband and I purchased a single-story home in an age-restricted community. The community has the infrastructure necessary to provide residents with ample opportunities to nurture their physical and mental well-being as they age. Within the 11 square miles that the city encompasses, there’s a full-service hospital. There are also several physicians’ offices, a dedicated fire and ambulance service, and a volunteer sheriff’s posse that provides wellness checks on residents.

The community has in place a wide variety of activities designed to provide the mental stimulation and social interactions necessary for healthy aging. In addition to four recreation centers, there are numerous parks, walking tracks and swimming pools. There’s also a library, woodworking shop and movie theater. The grocery stores, restaurants and shops within the community are all easily accessible by car, golf cart, bike or on foot. For mobility-challenged residents, a shuttle service is available to pick up residents from their homes and take them to any location within several square miles of their residence.

To achieve my financial goals, I’m planning to set up an annuity to supplement my Social Security and pension. This money should provide me with enough income to cover my basic living expenses. On top of that, I’ll be able to leave a substantial portion of my retirement earnings in an index fund to help mitigate the risks of inflation and provide me with supplemental discretionary income.

If I end up aging as gracefully as my grandmother, I may find my need for living assistance is minimal. But if I do find myself needing significant help caring for myself, I’ll have options. I may be able to transition into an assisted living facility within our retirement community or receive in-home assistance from any number of care providers located nearby.

Knowing I have a plan in place to address my physical, mental and financial well-being helps me relax a bit as I think about my future. Should I live as long, or longer, than my grandmother, I’m hopeful that I can remain independent for much of that time.

Kristine Hayes is a departmental manager at a small, liberal arts college. She enjoys competitive pistol shooting and hanging out with her husband and their dogs. Check out Kristine’s earlier articles.

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