Getting smarter about getting older

By: By Tom Campbell - Contributing columnist

“Whoever thought I was going to live so long,” my 96-year-old mother asked? She isn’t alone. 10,000 of us turn 65 every day. In 1990, North Carolina’s median age — meaning one half are younger and one half older — was 33.0. By 2016, that number had escalated to 38.7 years, making us the 20th oldest state in the nation. The Office of State Budget and Management predicts that 1 in 5 will be 65 or older by 2030.

For too many, the idyllic dream of golden years of leisure isn’t their reality. The average net worth of today’s 65 year old is $170,000, much of which includes their home equity. Even coupled with Social Security, this won’t afford a generous lifestyle for the 20-plus years most should live. Instead of getting the gold watch of retirement, many still have to punch the time clock, at least part time, to make ends meet.

It might be too late to sock away funds for retirement and too cost prohibitive to purchase long-term healthcare insurance but there are steps we can take to live healthier and happier lives. Eating healthier, getting more exercise and rest and engaging in less risky behaviors can serve seniors well.

One irony is the role reversal, where children seem to have forgotten who taught them to become functioning adults, constantly telling us they are worried for us, even when we adamantly state we are “fine.” But when we congregate with others our age, it doesn’t take long before the conversation switches to health issues, followed shortly after by the mantra, “Getting old ain’t for sissies.”

Getting old also doesn’t work well for those in denial. It benefits everyone to have discussions in advance of needs. There are legitimate questions that need answers, like what will happen if one spouse dies or becomes incapacitated? Should you give up the emotional and financial security of that comfortable house and consider one of the growing numbers of retirement communities or staged assisted living facilities? If independent living is the right choice, then perhaps downsizing might be advisable.

Those wishing to “age in place” in familiar surroundings should not wait until there is an accident to make their living environments safer and less cluttered. Many find it cheaper to make necessary renovations than to move, but changes must address both present and future needs. AARP, occupational therapists and a number of books deal with how to conduct a room-by-room assessments and actions. Bathrooms, for example, are the most dangerous room in the house, but installing grab bars, easier access into showers and tubs and the removal of scatter rugs can make them safer. Kitchens can also be troublesome; those cabinets, once easily accessible, are now challenging and the regular use of stepstools can be hazardous.

One seminar suggests starting a notebook that contains your team of trusted advisors, to include your lawyer, physician, financial planner, minister and all family members. Have all banking and financial account numbers, phone numbers, passwords and contacts logically arranged. Spell out where to find deeds, wills, powers of attorney, healthcare directives and funeral arrangements.

We may be getting older, but we can be smart about it and take precautions to make the years remaining as safe and worry free as possible. Maybe then we can call them “golden years.”

Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues that airs on UNC-TV. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.

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By Tom Campbell

Contributing columnist