Bracing for Evening

Jonathan Clements

HERE’S SOMETHING that’ll surprise exactly zero readers: I’m a planner. Even though I haven’t yet fully retired, I’m already worrying about how short the active part of my retirement will be.

For this, I blame my fellow HumbleDollar writers, as well as those who post comments. Many folks who are active on the site are older than me, and they’ve given me a sneak peek at what lies ahead. One thing I’ve learned: At some point between age 75 and 80, I should expect my retirement’s go-go years to become the slow-go years and perhaps even the no-go years.

Let’s be conservative—that’s what we planners do—and assume the active years will be over by age 75. I’m rapidly approaching 61, and have plans to scale back work once I turn 62. At that juncture, I intend to keep HumbleDollar humming along, but with fewer articles posted each week. The upshot: Even if all goes according to plan, I’m looking at just 13 go-go years.

During those 13 years, Elaine and I will work our way through our travel bucket list. When we’re home, I plan to cut myself some slack, no longer bicycling in the early morning hours, but instead starting the day more gently and riding late morning or during the afternoon. I also hope to renew my efforts to become a less horrible tennis player or perhaps—cliché alert—even try my hand at pickleball.

Maybe 13 go-go years will be more than enough. Still, I’ve come to appreciate why so many folks retire early, even when they don’t have enough socked away, because 13 years sure doesn’t sound like much. That’s doubly true when I think about what will follow.

As I mentioned in an article a few years ago, my father—who was struck and killed by a speeding car at age 75—loathed the idea of ending up in a nursing home or, indeed, in any sort of senior housing. I’ve long shared his distaste, but I’m slowly coming to accept that it may be necessary.

Part of the credit goes to my 84-year-old mother, who is also blessed and cursed with the planning gene. As my sister and I have joked, if my mother—upon her demise—could avoid inconveniencing others by burying herself, she’d do just that. Indeed, since my stepfather died in 2012, she first moved closer to two of my siblings, and then moved into a nearby continuing care retirement community, or CCRC. As my always sensible mother likes to say, “This is the right place for me to be.”

I suspect many affluent retirees will, in the years ahead, decide CCRCs are the place to be. It’s an appealing form of risk pooling. You pay somewhat steep monthly fees when you move into independent living, but in return you get a guaranteed spot later on in assisted living and skilled nursing, should that prove necessary.

My four grandparents all died at age 83 or 84. Two had dementia at the end of their life. My father’s parents were smart, downsizing to a small, ground-floor apartment for their retirement years. My mother’s parents were less sensible, remaining until the end in an overly large house on a big piece of property in a remote corner of England. They couldn’t afford to keep up the place, or even heat it properly, and by the end the ceilings were stained black with mold and damp. After my grandmother died in 2000, the buyers of her home did what had become almost a necessity—they demolished the place.

Not surprisingly, both waiting too long to move and dementia weigh heavily on my mind. Indeed, while the go-go years look alarmingly brief, the no-go years could potentially be all too long. That brings me to some numbers from a Wall Street Journal Sunday article I wrote in 2002.

For that article, I asked an actuary to look at the life expectancy for 65-year-olds, but ignore the 10% of seniors who die most quickly and the 10% who live the longest. That left the middle 80%. But even with the extremes removed, the range of potential life expectancies was still shockingly large.

Men age 65, who fall in the middle 80%, might live as little as seven years or as long as 32 years. For 65-year-old women, the range was 10 to 33 years. In other words, most 65-year-olds will make it to 75—when the go-go years might start drawing to a close—but some will have precious little time beyond that, while others could live another two decades. That sort of uncertainty doesn’t exactly make for easy planning.

Still, plan we must. Elaine and I have agreed that—if all goes well—we’ll stay in our current home through at least age 75, and use it as the base from which we’ll enjoy our go-go years. During this period—perhaps as we approach 70—we’ll start visiting continuing care retirement communities outside Philadelphia, with an eye to identifying a favored CCRC.

I don’t see much point in conducting our research earlier than that. After all, we could settle on a place that subsequently goes downhill because of bad management. On the other hand, we shouldn’t wait too long. I’ve heard that the waiting lists for CCRCs are growing, and there’s always the risk that physical deterioration—or, my big fear, dementia—mean no CCRC would admit us.

Not much rattles me. I’m unperturbed by stock market crashes and I don’t worry whether tomorrow will come. But I must confess, I look ahead to the no-go years with trepidation. But I’m hoping that, as with so many things, thinking about the future—and planning for it—will ease those fears.

Jonathan Clements is the founder and editor of HumbleDollar. Follow him on Twitter @ClementsMoney and on Facebook, and check out his earlier articles.

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