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What we retirees fear the most

As children we fear all sorts of imagined entities, ghosts and goblins, monsters under the bed or in the closet. But as we grow up these terrors abate and for the next 50 years we tend not to fear much at all. Then, as we approach retirement, the distress of dread returns.

There are certain things we fear at most stages of our life. But we fear different things at different stages.

As teenagers, for example, we worry about our looks and being accepted as part of the gang. When we first start work we worry about being good enough to succeed in our careers.

However, as retirees, we fear a variety of things that never bother the young and middle-aged. Here they are in no particular order:

  • loss of independence
  • declining health
  • inadequate pension
  • losing the ability to cope with the activities of daily living (ADL)
  • fear of falling
  • losing the ability to drive
  • feeling isolated and lonely
  • having strangers caring for us
  • becoming unable to live in your own home
  • death of a member of your family

Like most fears, talking about them relieves the stress.

Loss of independence

Our first stab at independence was when we struggled to walk upright on two legs.

Growing up was a time of striving to become independent of our parents and take on the responsibility of caring for ourselves.

Our goal of an independent existence was finally achieved when we left home to begin college or start working.

This love of independence, of being able to take care of ourselves, has been with us all our lives. We all want to live life on our own terms.

As a retiree this is my number one fear. I cherish my independence and worry that it will all begin to slip away as my physical and mental health declines in the near future.  

This loss of independence is unavoidable. There is nothing you can do.

You can only accept its inevitability and choose those who will be caring for you in the future wisely.

At the same time try to keep as much control over your life as possible.

Declining health

Once we’ve passed the age of 65 we notice that our health is beginning to decline. We’re not as strong as we used to be. And our minds are getting slower and slower.

According to The Institute on Aging in America, 91% of seniors suffer from one or more chronic medical conditions, so we’re not the only retirees with declining health.

Physical limitations increase as we get older. Our greatest fear is not being able to do all the things we are used to doing.

We find it very difficult to admit our fear of decline because it goes hand-in-hand with loss of independence.

We are reluctant to ask others to undertake a task we used to be able to do easily, such as getting up on a wobbly old stool to change a light bulb or filling out a tax return.

Our fear is that we’ll reach a point where we’ll need assistance every day to keep our homes clean or, even more dreadful, we’ll need a personal carer to help us get out of bed, wash, get dressed and so on.

Pride and stubbornness prevents us from talking through this worry with our children, nieces and nephews or younger friends.

What we need to accept is that 65% of retirees who require long-term home help rely on family and friends. Another 30% use paid assistance from professional carers for the elderly.

The sensible solution to this inevitable result of aging is to sit down with family and close friends to determine what we need now and will probably need in the future, and plan accordingly.

Inadequate pension

How much income you need is a matter of opinion, once you have covered your basic living expenses such as cost of housing, food, utilities etc.

After we retire our incomes usually drop substantially, often by as much as 60 to 75%. If we are used to living the “high-life”, frequenting restaurants and having several holidays a year abroad, this can pose a bit of a problem unless we have substantial savings and investments.

But even if we are well-heeled, many of use still fear we’ll run out of funds. We worry about what we’ll do if that happens and get angry when we think that we’ll become a burden to our children or others.

Our best bet in this scenario is to look at the problem objectively.

This is best done by drawing up a detailed budget covering basic expenses such as housing, food, utilities and insurance costs, as well as extras like hobbies and holidays. You also need to make provision for emergency money for home repairs and car servicing.

If you live in one of the social democracies such as the countries of Western Europe, you don’t need to worry about medical expenses as these are paid by the state. But if you live in the USA, you’ll need to provide for the costs of emergency medical events.

There are two main solutions if you find that your income as a retiree is inadequate. These are:

  • get a part-time job
  • set up an online business

Recent changes in the labour market may mean that you have to upgrade your skills.

Doing so will have the additional advantage that it will stave off the mental decline that is all part of getting older.

Losing the ability to copy with the activities of daily living (ADL)

Activities of daily living are all the normal things we do every day. These include eating, showering, dressing, cooking, cleaning the home and so on.

ADLs are one of the things we take for granted until we can no longer do them.

Becoming unable to carry out one or more of these activities reinforces our acute fear of a coming loss of independence. It exacerbates our fear that we are losing control of our lives.

Requiring help in performing ADLs is an unwelcome reminder of the dependency that we are going to experience in the coming future.

There are several things you can do to put off the inevitable for as long as possible:

  • Continue to carry out as much as possible of your ADLs even if the time they take is getting longer and longer.
  • Look for physical and mental activities, such as yoga and other activities, that will help you keep up your strength.
  • Look for home care aides that visit specifically to help with ADLs, such as getting up in the morning, so that you maximise your remaining independence.

Fear of falling

We retirees are all very well aware that we are not as surefooted as we once were. We know that if we fall or otherwise injure ourselves it may reduce our ability to go about our ADLs on our own.

According to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in the USA, one in three older people have a fall each year. Having a fall is the most likely of all our fears to come true.

The first thing you need to do is ask your doctor whether any of your medications have side effects such as dizziness. Seek his or her advice on whether these can be changed for meds that don’t make you dizzy or drowsy.

In addition, it is vital that you either remodel your home to prevent falls or move to a retirement home.

You can reduce the risk of falls in your home in a variety of ways, such as by having:

  • grab bars installed in the shower, and next to the toilet
  • seating installed in the shower
  • your bathroom remodelled so you have a wet-floor and do not have to step over a threshold to enter the shower
  • handrails installed on all stairs and steps
  • anti-slip strips placed on all steps
  • increased lighting install in problem areas
  • all tripping hazards, such as loose rugs, removed
  • all clutter removed from areas that experience heavy traffic, such as the route from the dining table to the kitchen

There are many other simple preventative measures that can be undertaken.

Having strangers caring for us

As a general rule, we all prefer to have familiar faces around us.

Having a stranger provide care, especially for intimate needs, can be extremely embarrassing and make us feel exceptionally uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, a member of your family cannot always be your primary caregiver which would reduce the embarrassment.

If you are hiring help from outside the family, you should vet the person carefully or get a family member or a friend you can trust to do so on your behalf.

Make sure a family member or someone you trust is present when you interview a potential carer. Any concerns you have should be expressed clearly to whoever is helping you vet them.

Don’t hire anyone until you feel fully comfortable being alone with them. If anything feels “off”, don’t ignore your instincts.

Make sure you check their references thoroughly or that someone you trust does so. Make sure you obtain a police report or have a background check done before you let them into your home.

Just because someone is qualified doesn’t mean they’re a good fit for you. Ask a family member to be present the first few times your carer comes in order to reduce the stress of being alone with a stranger.

Eventually you should become friends with your home carer. If not, don’t hesitate to seek a change.

Losing the ability to drive

There are two reasons that can force you to stop driving:

  • You lose the ability to control a car because of growing feebleness.
  • You lose your driving licence (permit) because your doctor refuses to certify you as fit to drive. Such a fitness certificate is required in most jurisdictions once you reach a certain age, such as 70.

Having to give up the car is a severe blow to all retirees. It’s one more nail in the coffin of our independence. We are no longer able to go to places on our own. We have to depend on others.

So what to do?

There are several things you can do to anticipate your coming inability to drive:

  • Strike deals with neighbours, friends and family who can drive by discussing the problem with them.
  • Check out local bus services.
  • Join a local day care centre for older persons. Most of these have a shuttle bus service to collect retirees from their homes and return them back later.
  • Others run shuttle services for older people who need to go to appointments, go shopping or enjoy various recreational activities.
  • Many of the larger supermarkets in Western countries have online shopping with free delivery. You select what you want online and pay by credit or debit card when your groceries etc are delivered.

Feeling isolated and lonely

If we are no longer able to drive then, as we grow older we’ll being to be increasingly isolated. As a result we can become very lonely.

It’s very difficult to establish new relationships during old age, and being alone increases the feeling that we are “unwanted”. This can lead to depression, which is common among the oldest-old who live alone.

However you manage it, it is important that you get out and about. You must socialize regularly as it’s the only way to beat depression. Look for help from family members or your close neighbours.

Check out your local day care centre or centre for seniors for activities they may be hosting that you could enjoy. Most of these centres offer trips now and then to local places and events, so you’re sure to find something that suits you.

Walking into a whole new group of people will feel awkward at first, so ask a friend or relative to go with you for the first few times. After a few days or so you will feel comfortable enough to go alone.

And best of all, it is quite likely that, by then, you’ll have struck up a friendship with one or more of the other retirees.

Becoming unable to live in your own home

For most of us, home is much more than the place where we live. It’s familiar, feels safe, and is packed with memories so it is part of our identities.

The thought of having to leave our familiar homes is a looming threat for all of us.

Like most fears, talking about the subject will alleviate the stress. Talk with your family and close friends.

You’ll need to discuss options such as having a live-in companion or moving into sheltered or assisted living housing with resident nurses available 24/7.

The more you talk about it, the more likely you are to find an agreeable solution.

Remember you are looking at options for the future, not planning a move at the present time.

Once you understand the various possibilities you have available, you’ll no longer have to worry about what the future may bring.

Death of a member of your family

As we get older we are reminded more and more of our own mortality as our friends and members of our family begin to die in increasing numbers.

These deaths bring with them a genuine sense of loss of relationships and the knowledge that it is harder to build lasting relationships at an advanced age.

Most retirees worry more about losing a loved one than they do their own death. Indeed, fearing the loss of a close caregiver can be extremely stressful.

Discussing the possibility that these deaths will happen while you are still alive is the best thing to do as it allows you to look at this fear more objectively.

Bringing your own mortality into the conversation will also help assuage the dread.

Indeed, the best way to bring this up may be to talk about your own mortality. Make a “living will” to let everyone know your wishes if you become incapacitated can also help.

A living will is an advance healthcare directive, in which you specify in advance what actions should be taken for your health if you are no longer able to make decisions for yourself.  

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Many of the myths of living as a retiree can be dispelled when they are vocalised. So it’s important to discuss them in an informal conversation with someone you trust will take your concerns seriously.

Our fears can grow bigger when we don’t open up and let them out. Remember as a kid, when you couldn’t sleep, asking someone to check for monsters under the bed or behind the closet door. It’s a bit like that.

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