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That Fearsome Number

03/02/2015

Here, at the corner of Good Planning and Good Living, where I practice, I usually feel an obligation to teach my clients whenever possible, or at least, to help them see a wrinkle in their perspective that might be helpful.  Quite often, they teach me.

Recently, I was visiting a client and discussing the requirement that he begin taking minimum required distributions from his IRA since he had turned 70.  His demeanor changed at this, and I suspected he had a problem thinking about being 70 and asked him.  Paraphrasing now, he replied he did not, but he was very apprehensive about turning 80.

As this man was a hard-driving executive with a fondness for numbers and the gift of cold logic, I suspected his apprehension might spring from his inability to command the aging process, even though he has done a great job of managing it,  Although he is quite a good 70-year-old athlete now, he can still only manage the process, not stop it.  Some people just have a high need to control.  I think I mumbled something about the pride earned by being 80, but that didn’t change his perspective much at all.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about the change from being 70 to being 80, as opposed from age 50 to 60 for example.  My first thought was that 80-year-olds used to be relatively rare but are now commonplace, which would make the obvious physical changes more routine and less startling.

More commonly, I see people concerned about the visible change in physical appearance by age 80.  Women fret about the loss of bone density, as men fret about the loss of muscle mass.  Is there any other word for age 80 than old?  And, is that a bad word anyway?  While there are lots of physically vibrant 70-year-olds, there are vastly fewer at age 80.

Financially, I don’t see the uncertainty and fear that I see in most 50-year-olds.  80-year-olds have out-lived that fear and conquered it.  Popular wisdom says that older investors take less risk than younger investors, but there are numerous exceptions.  My least risk-adverse client is well into his 90’s.

Socially, my totally unscientific observation is that 80-year-olds seek out fewer social activities but seem to enjoy them more.  By that age, I guess they know what type of activities they enjoy or maybe what type of people they want to be social with.  I would like to better understand this part of the aging process.

Beyond the physical decline, there is often both a mental decline and a psychological decline.  These are probably the greatest fears.  The science of arresting mental decline is not as advanced as the science of arresting physical decline, but it is growing faster.  At this point, doing different things with the mind, different than the mind is accustomed to doing, seems the best self-help remedy.  This is within our control.  We can, at least, practice doing different things with our mind.

The science of arresting psychological decline is still very rudimentary at this point.  Some people become extremely isolated and bitter at the world, for no apparent reason.  I suspect psychological decline is best arrested by associating with a number of different types of people and studying their psychological state.  So much research is needed in this area and so little is being done.

Twenty years ago, I recall a late client in his late 70’s telling me that his mind was finally stronger than his libido, and he was glad about that.  I’m still struggling with this concept . . .

Cold logic suggests you will either live to be 80 or you will not.  If you don’t, there is nothing to worry about.  If you do, you will be happier if you start planning now for the expected problems later.  Exercise your body – you know how to do that, don’t you?  Exercise your mind by doing different things with it.  Exercise your psychological/emotion condition by tolerating/studying different types of people now.  Either you will plan ahead . . . or you won’t.

Now, make your financial planner happy!

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