Becoming a Senior: Are You Prepared?

As you, your clients, or your loved ones approach retirement age, you will be faced with many challenges and choices related to health care, safety, finances, and maintaining an overall good quality of life.  At Elder Law of East Tennessee, both in our office and in our personal lives we know many examples of people who prolong planning for these challenges until the situation becomes critical.  By planning early, you and the people you know and love can avoid a lot of trouble further down the road and can enjoy much greater peace of mind for a longer time.

We recently received a tip about an interactive website designed to get the wheels turning and help you start thinking about how to plan for your later years.  Visit www.elderornot.com to take the Elder Preparedness Self-Assessment Test.  This tool is valuable for elders, elder care professionals, and younger family members to help understand some of the issues faced by the aging population.  We have also prepared a list of Ten Tips to Help You Plan for Retirement.  If you want more information about any of these suggestions or need help finding local resources to meet your needs, please get in touch with us at Elder Law of East Tennessee.  Our attorney, care coordinator, and other staff members can help you find all the answers.

  1. Get a top-notch Estate Plan in place.

Many people draw up Wills or Powers of Attorney when they marry or have children.  But people and circumstances change over time.  Years later, when the nest is empty and retirement is on the horizon, it is time to review and update those documents to match the current circumstances.  The people you previously chose to serve as executor of your Last Will and Testament or agent of your Power of Attorney may no longer be the best choices to serve in those roles.  Furthermore, the considerations that went into drafting your existing documents may be significantly different from your present needs and wishes.

It is best to seek the help of a qualified elder law attorney to help you consider all your options and make informed decisions when you create your Estate Plan.  We are not just advocating professional help because we are a law office; as we said in a recent blog, a legal professional who is well-versed in addressing elder issues can help you avoid many legal pitfalls, such as contradictory or unclear legal documents.  Seeking guidance from a qualified elder law professional can spare you and your family a lot of problems and can help to preserve your assets.

  1. Review investments and investment strategies.

Just as you need to review and update your estate plan, so too you should take a look at your investment portfolio.  Investment strategies that made sense when you were in your 30s, 40s, or 50s may need some revamping.  Often investments for older adults are shifted into less volatile products.  You may want to simplify your holdings to make them easier to manage.  If you do not have a trusted and qualified financial advisor, it is likely that your bank has professionals who can assist you.  Only seek help from a properly-licensed financial advisor.  Make sure that the investment is thoroughly researched and that you understand it before you invest!

  1. Don’t keep secrets.

Most of us are a little squeamish about sharing information about our financial status, our legal documents, and our wishes about future care needs.  However, retirement age is not the time to hold your cards too close to your vest!  It can be a huge burden for a family if an elder loved one becomes unable to communicate vital information while there are still financial loose ends to address or health care decisions to make.

To avoid these problems, you can let children or other trusted loved ones know how to access your legal documents when needed without having to share all the details about assets and how you have decided to distribute them.  You may also wish to let them know the name of your financial advisor or the location of your financial information so that bills can be paid on your behalf if you become unable to handle them yourself.

One of the most difficult but important actions you can take is to have a frank discussion with your loved ones about what kind of care you (or they) would want in the event of physical or cognitive incapacitation.  Healthcare decision-makers face many emotional challenges, and you can ease their burden while ensuring that your own wishes are met by having this conversation before you face a critical situation.  However, while you are healthy and vibrant it can be tough to focus on what life might be like if and when that changes.  We have found the “Your Way” tool to be a great way of guiding the discussion about end-of-life choices to bring the whole family greater peace of mind.

  1. Consider downsizing.

A lot of emotion and identity can be attached to a home where one has lived a number of years or raised a family.  However, the house that accommodated a young family is often not very senior-friendly.  There may be too many rooms to keep clean, too much lawn care and general upkeep to manage, and too many stairs or other features of the home which are difficult to navigate in old age.  If this is the case, consider relocating to a smaller home that will be easier for you to get around and maintain.

  1. Go where the support services are.

If you do decide to relocate, look for housing that offers easy access to services of all kinds, opportunities for recreation and socialization, and of course a good selection of health care providers.  For example, you might look into a “continuum of care” community, which offers full-size homes, condominiums or apartments, an assisted living facility, and a facility for long-term skilled care all in the same area.  By relocating to this type of development, you can establish yourself in a community where you will find support no matter what physical limitations or medical challenges you face as you age.  Another option is to relocate closer to children or extended family members who may be able to assist you and enhance your quality of life.  To maximize independence wherever you go, look for communities that offer a broad spectrum of senior-friendly public transportation options.

  1. Remodel now, not later.

If your home is the right size and is already in a good location to meet your needs as you age, take some time to do an internal assessment to see if it is handicapped-accessible.  If it is not, consider what changes would be needed to make it so.  Getting in and out of the home and taking care of personal hygiene needs are two areas that deserve close attention.  For example, will your doorways, bathrooms, and outside entrances accommodate a wheelchair?  Do you have a walk-in shower?

Remodeling can be expensive and might take some patience and persistence to get through, which is why you should get an early start.  Seek the help of a licensed and insured contractor skilled in modifying homes to meet the needs of aging adults.  This type of professional will be able to help ensure that you don’t overlook other aspects of your home that could become obstacles to independence in the future.

  1. Share yourself.

Never assume that you don’t have something to offer to others!  This assumption is one of several causes of depression in elders.  As we age, so do our lifelong friends and partners.  Sometimes it seems that our social circle is shrinking irrevocably.  Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your useful life is over.  Opportunities to meet new people and build close and supportive friendships abound.  For instance, touch base with your local United Way or with church groups to see how you can use your talents to serve others.  You will not only be helping, but you will also connect with new people who will greatly appreciate your years of valuable experience and your willingness to share of yourself.  Besides that, building new relationships with people of all ages can help keep positive energy flowing into your life.

  1. Engage in regular physical activity.

You have heard it a thousand times already, but we will repeat it because it’s true:  studies indicate that the more active a person is, the healthier he or she remains in old age and the better he or she fares cognitively.  You don’t have to run a marathon or do anything especially vigorous; almost everyone can do some type of exercise which will benefit their body.  The point is to keep yourself moving.  Walking, dancing, swimming, and yoga are just a few examples of ways to stay physically fit, and they can be done almost anywhere year-round.  Many senior centers, health clubs, and churches also offer facilities and classes to help you stay fit while providing an opportunity for expanding your social circle.

  1. Stretch your mind.

Just as it is important to stay physically active, it is equally essential to give your mind a regular workout.  In April last year we blogged about how music, animals, and other stimuli help to keep an elderly person’s spirit alive, and this May 2013 article from U.S. News and World Report lists ten other ways to stay mentally young.  Again, you can often turn to senior centers and churches, as well as universities and community colleges, as a source of enriching classes and activities.  For those who find it difficult to get out of the house, there are still plenty of options.  Through ed2go, which offers certification courses in a wide range of topics through colleges and universities (and some free courses through public libraries), you could develop new skills to enrich your life.  Even simple exercises like working crossword puzzles, playing games, and reading books serve to stimulate the grey matter and keep your mind active.

  1. Manage your health wisely.

Stay on top of your health by using a calendar to make sure your checkups with your doctor, dentist, and other healthcare specialists are appropriately scheduled.  Stay informed about new treatments for any chronic conditions you may suffer.  Before each visit, make a list of questions you need to ask.  Carry a list of all medications or supplements you are taking.  Be sure that you always carry emergency contact information with you, and post a copy on your refrigerator in case you suffer a fall or other medical emergency while at home.

Besides attending your regular appointments and carrying necessary emergency information, you should also give a lot of thought and attention to preventive care.  Many aging adults resist seeking medical help or investing in tools that will aid their mobility and daily activities until they are in dire circumstances, and often by that point it is too late to take the steps which could have prolonged good health and independence.  Sometimes the treatments or equipment your doctor or other healthcare professionals recommend may seem expensive, but by improving your long-term health they can save you a lot more money and pain in the long run.  This is not to say that you should accept every treatment or purchase every device along the way, but you and your family should give careful thought to how the steps you take now may improve your health and your overall quality of life in the future.