Farewell to Forever

Jeffrey K. Actor

WHEN I WAS YOUNG, I felt immortal. We all did. It’s natural and likely hardwired into our brains. Such feelings of immortality have an evolutionary advantage, encouraging us to take the risks necessary to succeed.

When I planned for retirement, the notion of immortality was front and center. I consider myself in excellent health. I eat right. I’m not overweight. I stay active. I have a close circle of friends and an active social community from which to draw strength. Heck, I can do 25 pushups without breaking a sweat.

But I also wear a thick set of health blinders.

Both my parents exhibited dementia shortly after turning age 80. My father passed away from cardiac stenosis at 83, in many ways sparing him the loss of mental function. Unfortunately, both autoimmune disorders and neurological dysfunction are rooted in my family tree.

Meanwhile, I have high blood pressure, a genetic variant of hyperlipidemia, esophageal Barrett’s syndrome and the common benign prostatic hyperplasia that all men get as they age. I’ve had two heart attacks requiring stent placements. In addition, I live with autoimmune gluten sensitivity. My physician daughter tells me that I have signs of a tremor. To top it off, I have crooked teeth (although my breath is minty fresh).

Oh yes, I also had a brain tumor excised last year. Almost forgot that one.

Yet I still think of myself as immortal.

Our retirement plan incorporates an “immortal” timeline, with a 40-year survival expectancy for both my spouse and me. For decades, our investment strategy was set to nearly 90% stocks. When I turned age 59, I moved to 80% stocks and 20% bonds and cash—an asset allocation that reflects my conviction that we’ll live for many more decades. I rebalance semi-annually to those asset allocation targets.

We expect to delay taking my Social Security benefits until I’m 70. In addition to our core retirement portfolio, we’ve set aside three years’ worth of expenses for necessities, travel, projected taxes, charitable giving, and modest annual gifts to our children. Perhaps our three-year buffer is excessive, but it allows us to sleep at night.

I rely on predictive spending models to convince myself that our portfolio is large enough to carry us through four decades. I love FIRECalc and the Bogleheads’ “variable percentage withdrawal” spreadsheet. I test spending levels using an inflation-adjusted 4% withdrawal rate or less. I also take advantage of Monte Carlo simulations and other predictive calculators, such as those at DQYDJ, to reconfirm our spending plans.

My wife and I are confident that we’ll be able to cover future expenses—including taxes and adjusting for inflation—until we both reach the centenarian mark. Overall, we’re extremely comfortable with this “immortal” outlook. What if we die before we reach age 100? We’re happy to leave monies to our heirs and charity.

Which brings me back to what happened almost exactly one year ago. Simply put, I had a brain tumor diagnosed and then removed. This type of life-changing event can definitely mess with one’s sense of immortality.

My neurosurgeon said, “If you have to have a brain tumor, this is one of the best kinds to have.” Reflexively, I imagined giving him my best Rocky Balboa right-jab left-hook combination, but deep down I knew that I was truly fortunate.

Without treatment, the tumor would have constricted two blood vessels, leading to a stroke or hemorrhage. The growth itself, if left unheeded, would have caused permanent right-side motor deficits and immobility. I wouldn’t have survived to collect full Social Security benefits.

Surgery and radiation treatment were successful. The tumor was benign and I’ve made a nearly complete recovery. I’m told that I can, and should, lead a normal and healthy life. I was lucky.

Very, very lucky.

In light of recent events, I’m inclined to reevaluate our 40-year retirement horizon. Maybe I’ll lower expectations, at least for me, to a more realistic 25 or 30 additional years. Perhaps we’ll live a little larger, a little less frugally, and travel more in the near future, rather than wait until the perfect time arrives.

I don’t want my positive outlook on life to change. I’m committed to living each day to its fullest. I still want to think I’m immortal. Only now, the small voice in the back of my head recommends that, for the sake of financial planning, my statistical life expectancy should be reduced.

Perhaps I’ll now consider myself only 80% immortal.

Jeffrey K. Actor, PhD, was a professor at a major medical school in Houston for more than 25 years, serving as an academic researcher with interests in how immune responses function to fight pathogenic diseases. Jeff’s retirement goals are to write short science fiction stories, volunteer in the community and spend time in his garden. Check out his earlier articles.

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