We're living longer so pay attention to your finances

When John F. Kennedy Jr. died along with his wife and sister-in-law in a tragic plane crash some years ago, his uncle, Sen. Ted Kennedy, said in his eulogy that John had been given every gift life has to offer - except for the gift of time. Being able to live a long life, especially when it is a good life, is considered by most of us to be a blessing. Reaching old age is part of what we hope for - for ourselves as well as for our loved ones.
Modern medicine and higher standards of living have enabled us to nearly double our average life expectancy over the course of only a century. The number of folks living more than 100 years is steadily rising. In most places you won't get a congratulatory call or letter on your birthday from the mayor's office any more - because there are too many centennial celebrations these days. Reaching old age is now the norm rather than the exception.
There are also plenty of warnings about the potentially negative implications and consequences of our extended longevity. Finances, of course, can be a major concern. Our traditional views of retirement may no longer be applicable when people live for another 30 or 40 years after they leave the work force. Employer sponsored pension plans, as we have known them in the past, are fading away fast and personal savings are in most cases not enough to bridge the gap between a fixed income and the ever rising costs of living.
Another growing concern is the need for affordable health care that can become an ever more pressing matter with age. These are real problems that most of us will be forced to deal with - especially the Baby Boomers who are about to enter retirement. The alarm bells are ringing loud and clear, but there are few plans to prevent a serious crisis that could affect our society as a whole.
It is needless to say that one can feel overpowered and even helpless when faced with such dire prospects. And yet, I'm optimistic that the blessing of longevity will not eventually turn into a curse. There's a lot we can do on a personal level to make the best of our "golden years" - but it requires a different game plan than the one we followed for so long.
We already know that for most of us the old life plans - education, career, retirement - no longer hold. In addition to formal schooling, life-long learning is required for most workers just to remain employable. Instead of staying in one career, many of us typically change jobs more than once.
In the past, people retired not because they reached a certain age, but rather because they were too old to keep working. More often than not, they died soon afterward. By contrast, retirement age today at 65 forces a great number of employees out of the work force when they are practically still in their prime (just look at retiring airline pilots).
Partly out of financial necessity, partly out of the desire to fill their remaining years with something meaningful to do, many retirees look for new activities hoping to find another career or business opportunity for themselves. There's a lot of talk about "reinventing" retirement and there's no shortage of professional advice how to go about it.
A critical component of this "reinvention" consists of the development of a different mindset. Retirement can no longer be seen as a time of rest after years of work. Rather, we should see it as another stage of life where we may be less career-minded but may be more driven by our personal interests. For some, it may be the right time to "retire" when their kids are grown up and their responsibilities as bread-winners and providers for their families are lessened. For others, it may be a time when the dream of their lifetime finally comes true.
It is also important to remember that retirement does not just happen to us at the moment when we reach that certain age. To get ready for retirement requires a lifetime of preparation - not just financially. Many "successful retirees" will tell you that they kept doing more or less the same things they've always been doing. If they were physically active and maintained a healthy lifestyle over the years, they usually were not plagued by the aches and pains of old age. If they were intellectually curious throughout their lives, they typically remained mentally fit in later years as well. No doubt, the deposits we make early in life have a way of paying off when we need them the most.

Timi Gustafson is the author of "The Healthy Diner - How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun." Her book is available in bookstores and online at www.thehealthydiner.com or at Amazon.com - To receive her free monthly newsletter by e-mail, you may send a request to tmg@timigustafson.com

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