Retirement Planning – The Rich Widow(er) and Orphan Phenomenon

Paul Harter Paul Harter
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How much would you pay for a physically and mentally healthy and active life until age 100 as a percentage of your net worth, or after-tax annual income? How much is one or two percent in pounds and pence?

I have recently retired from a life-long career. From a planning perspective, I started thinking about retirement when my children were born. I never dwelled deeply on retirement, at least not until it happened. I saved and invested to the best of my ability to secure, to the extent possible, my own financial future and that of my loved ones.

I often discuss retirement planning with my peers. Many of them are highly educated, reasonably high earning, mature adults, blessed with the financial and intellectual means to plan responsibly. While we never talk numbers, we do talk concepts. One concept that fascinates me is the extent to which my peers want to provide for their children and other loved ones. It’s an important question. However, I’ve noticed that many of my peers have not asked an equally important question: 

Have you adequately provided for yourself in retirement?

The rich widow(er) and orphan phenomenon occurs when you plan for your loved ones, but not for yourself. I am not referring to financial investments, but rather to investment in health and longevity. Our partners and children will miss us when we’re gone. They will be glad to have whatever we leave behind for them. 

But wouldn’t it be great if we could spare them the strain of nursing us through years of ill health and the grief of our own pre-mature death?

While death is an unavoidable outcome for all of us, the quality of our lives in retirement and our longevity rest to a large extent in our own hands. In fact, it rests in our own hands to a much larger extent than most people acknowledge.

As humans, most of us would be able to lead a physically and cognitively active life to age 100 and beyond if we could manage to remain free of the age-related diseases that take us before then.  

Sure, genetics play a role, but for most of us it is not nearly as significant a role as our lifestyles. Why is it that the populations with the highest percentage of centenarians are not in places that have the most wealth or the best medical care, but rather in the more remote so-called “Blue Zones” of the world? They are in places like Okinawa and Costa Rica in communities with a lifestyle and circumstances very different from our own. In the Western world, most people die of age-related diseases long before their hundredth birthday. And before dying, our later years of life are often plagued with physical or cognitive infirmity that hugely damage the quality of our lives. For many of us, our ageing parents prove the point in a very personal and painful way.

And so, it should follow that our health is our most important retirement asset. Yet so many of us fail to make the investment that it requires. It is primarily an investment of time and energy, rather than money. It is about taking the time to get adequate exercise. It is about investing the energy in healthy eating; losing weight when necessary; and maintaining a healthy weight. It is about managing stress and taking the time to engage in activities that reduce it. It is about developing and maintaining healthy sleep hygiene. These are the investments that reduce the risk of early demise from so many diseases and conditions: cancer, heart attacks, strokes, type II diabetes, osteoporosis, dementia and other forms of cognitive decline. They prevent or at least delay the old age frailty that stops people from leading physically active lives in their later years.

Of course, people struggle to do what they know they need to do for their health and fitness. For some it’s making the time. For others it’s finding the motivation to do things they consider difficult or unpleasant. In contrast to so many things in life, you cannot outsource exercise and healthy eating to third party providers. You need to do the exercise and healthy eating yourself.

You can, however, buy support. And often, the support is exactly what people need to overcome the barriers they see or feel and to begin to acquire new, sustainable habits that underpin long term health. Support is available from many health and wellness professionals – from nutritionists and dieticians, from strength and conditioning coaches and life coaches, from personal trainers and sleep therapists, from physiotherapists and counselors. You can also read books and take classes. You can join support groups or adult sports teams. You can join a gym or buy a bicycle. It’s best to select support carefully. The wellness industry is rife with pseudoscience and ineffective gimmicks, so it’s best to do your diligence or seek advice from people you trust.

Returning to my original question: How much would you pay for a physically and mentally healthy and active life until age 100?

At one end of the spectrum, a gym membership can cost as little as £25 per month, including fitness classes. At the other end, gold standard support from top coaches and health care professionals could run to a few thousand per month. And there is a lot in between. We know that most people buy a gym membership, go three times a week and exercise safely and effectively on their own initiative. Busy people get better results when they get the support they need. Can you afford not to make the investment?

So, if you are contemplating retirement, you may want to make an important decision. Have you made all the necessary investments to support yourself financially, physically and mentally in your retirement years, as well as to provide for your loved ones as you see fit? Or, have you focused only on your financial investments so you can leave a rich widow(er) and orphans behind.

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