Retirement planning is all about the numbers. Yet, there is one number most of us take for granted or don’t even consider.
We are told that retirement is all about dollars and cents. How much money do we have to ensure our financial security? One financial services firm even had an advertising campaign where people asked, “What’s my number?” The ad portrayed people walking down the street with images of large digit amounts of money over their heads.
Other numbers become part of our retirement life as well. Blood pressure, good and bad cholesterol, body mass index, and other measures that indicate our physical health become part of our everyday concerns or at least conversations with our doctor. One health insurer ran ads stressing that you should “know your numbers.” In many ways the numbers reflecting our health and wealth become the equivalent of SAT scores in older age. And, like SAT scores, they are, at best, an incomplete approximation of our future.
Another number may be even more indicative of how you will live in older age – your Zip Code. Thanks to students in my MIT Global Aging & Built Environment class, we have been thinking a lot about the role of place in retirement. Where you live has an incredible impact and predictive power on how well you will live.
Place and well-being are a topic for many researchers, especially those examining health disparities between income, race, and other groups. One study’s title poignantly frames the issue best with respect to health outcomes of mothers and children: “Why Your Zip Code Matters More Than Your Genetic Code.” A recent study, conducted by researchers at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, provides new insights into how place affects life expectancy. Factors such as access to quality food, density of alcohol and tobacco outlets; walkability; parks and green space; housing characteristics; and air pollution, all have some impact on life expectancy. This study, and many others, indicate that within the same metropolitan area, or even the same city or town, life expectancy and quality of life can differ widely. Sometimes only a few blocks can mean many more years of life.
Longevity Planning And Assessing The “Where” To Live In Older Age
While retirement planning remains focused on money, applying a longevity planning lens requires people to think about their financial security as well as planning for their overall quality of life across the lifespan — particularly in older age. So how might we think about the where factor in older age?
Most of us think where we’ll live in retirement is answered by where we live now. That is, we choose to age in place and stay put. However, as we age, our needs, desires, health conditions, social connections, and more will change. This can often create a disconnect between what works now and what will work later on.
Others plan to move but have visions of retirement brochures dancing in their heads. These images portray retirement living as an endless vacation — a life stage filled with beaches, bicycles, and yes, pickleball. Retirement is likely to be a long time. For many people, it can be one-third of adult life. Choosing where to live based on recreation interests or vacation memories alone may not support living well in older age for decades.
In his stellar book, “Right Place, Right Time,” my healthy aging colleague Ryan Frederick points out: “The opportunity for place to ensure our lives is omnipresent. We need to be aware of its impact, assess the appropriateness of our current environment, and have the courage to take action when needed.”
Here are just a few (far from exhaustive) questions to consider and discuss when assessing the “where” in your longevity planning.
Do you have friends or family nearby?
Does your location offer places and spaces that provide chances to meet new people, to continue investing in your social portfolio of friends, and to introduce you to other people that simply make you smile?
Where might you access the healthcare you need?
Just because there is an emergency room or doctor’s office nearby does not mean that the care provided in these places is the care you need. Assess your, and your family’s, unique health conditions and the specialists that are nearby.
Are there places to play, to experience, and to join others in something new?
No, you might not go to the museum, theater, stadium, or that college class, or any other fun distraction everyday, but it’s nice to have the choice.
How many places are there to work or to volunteer?
Do they offer flexibility to volunteer or to work full-time, part-time, or even just some of the time?
How will you get to the places you need and want?
Even if you drive, walk, or bike today, will you be able and willing to do that in the future? Are there transportation alternatives to make the required trips, such as grocery shopping and doctor’s appointments, as well as the just-for-fun trips, like going out to get an ice cream cone on a hot summer night?
These are just a few questions to get you started. There are many others. The AARP Livability Index offers a great tool to begin your planning, your discussions, and your ultimate choice of what your “where” will be. And yes, it begins by asking for the Zip Code.