The importance of planning for your senior years

Nov 28, 2014

Many people don't think through what their needs will be in their senior years, as their physical capabilities or health decline. But, experts in the field of elder care believe that is a mistake. WRVO Public Media community recently held a community forum in Ithaca on the topic, which will be broadcast Sunday at 7 p.m. The three expert panelists agreed that much more planning should be done by all involved in the lives of the elderly.

"If you look at the research, people tend not to like to plan for unpleasant things in the future," said Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist at Cornell University.

Pillemer researches and writes about the ways people can maintain happy, healthy lives when they're elderly. But at the forum, he says in order to do that, individuals need to think about their retirement long  before they reach that age.

"I think that a problem with younger people is that their view of old age is much too short. That people have an image in their 30s and 40s of the end at 60 or 70, not realizing that they may still have left as much time as they had, say, in the workforce. So I think there's this much longer timespan needed in which people think of having and need your body for 100 years," said Pillemer.

Many individuals may think about saving money for retirement, but that's only the beginning of the planning process. Growing older can mean a need for different transportation options, more access to medical care, and help with a variety of tasks. But the decisions really all start with housing.

Panelist Dr. Bill Thomas is a physician and an innovator in senior housing. He says the vast majority of the time, seniors would be better off not staying in the same house they've lived in most of their adult years. But, he says, many older people are reluctant to make that change.

"The problem is, in American society, if you make a decision to leave your home, it is ascribed as a failure and you're on a downward slope, and that's it, it's over," said Thomas.

Staying in your own home, or what's called "aging in place," can be especially problematic in rural areas, like many parts of central and northern New York. The things that can already be more difficult in the senior years, like transportation and access to medical care and other kinds of help, are exasperated. But, Thomas says, what can be even more difficult to maintain for seniors who stay in their own home, and most important, is a sense of community.

"People, right here in our community, actually are living alone, and lonely lives, isolated, bored, cut off from the community," said Thomas. "Aging is a team sport. And if you want to play and you want to win, you've got to be with people. And aging in place often -- too often -- makes that impossible."

Martha Stettinius is an author and caregiver advocate. At the forum, she cited statistics that show most people will need some form of long-term care, and that women, who have a longer life expectancy, are more likely to require it than men.

"Unfortunately, people don't know what long-term care involves," said Stettinius. "It can be anything from cooking and cleaning and shopping to bathing, dressing, toileting and feeding someone. There's a long range. For people with Alzheimer's and other dementias, it can last for 20 years and deplete you hard-earned savings."

Stettinius was the primary caregiver for her mother and says she learned from her own experience the importance of letting your family members know early on your desires for where you live and how you will be cared for, before you're unable to. Her mother did that.

And the more children of seniors can be involved in the planning process, the better.

All of the panelists agreed that governments need to make adjustments in their communities for the growing senior population. Baby boomers are aging, and in recent years upstate New York has struggled to keep younger people in the region.

The entire community forum on elder care will be broadcast on WRVO this Sunday at 7 p.m. This forum is sponsored by the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.