June 2009 Archives

June 16, 2009

Friends Are More Important Than Money

For years I've been making the point that a strong friendship network is key to leading a successful life after retirement. After years of having this subject largely ignored as a huge element of successful aging, it was great to read the New York Times' recent article, "What Are Friends For? A Longer Life".

Mentioned in this article is an Australian study that found that older people with a large circle of friends were 22% less likely to die (during the study period) than those who were more socially isolated -- and an even more fascinating 2007 study that reported a 60% increase in obesity among people whose friends gained weight.

But one key thing about the value of strong friendship ties that most studies and commentators have missed so far is that the age of your friends is at least as important as the number. Or, put another way, if your friends are predominantly older than you are, or of the same age, then the more you have, the more funerals you'll attend.

Watching friends decline and die is obviously no fun -- so little that each time you go through this, you'll be at high risk of being sad and depressed for weeks, if not months.

So if having lots of friends will enrich your later years and may even contribute to your longevity, but experiencing the death of a friend will obviously be a bummer, what course of action will be best? The answer is to make and keep a good number of younger friends. Obvious, you may be thinking, but a lot easier said than done. Not so! As I'll explore in my next post, there are many ways to make true friends of all ages.
June 10, 2009

Make Younger Friends

If most of your friends are about your age or older and you live into your 80s, many, if not most, will die or become mentally incapacitated before you do. Not only will this deprive you of their companionship and increase the likelihood that you will spend many hours and days alone, but losing a friend is always a painful event. This is true even though you still have other friends or the ability to make new ones. Here is how my friends Michael Phillips and Catherine Campbell, authors of Simple Living Investments for Old Age (Clear Glass Publishing) -- a small book I highly recommend -- put it:

The death of friends, including lovers and family, will be a powerful and debilitating force. As we age, the names listed in our personal phone books will slowly be crossed out. To sense the extent of the problem, we can imagine a party to which a large number of long-time friends are invited. Now picture the same guest list when we are 65: One out of four, 25% of our male friends, will have died. By the time we are 85, only one out of five men who were our friends at age 35 will still be alive, and only two out of five women.

When we travel to a city where we once had many friends, it will be painful to try to reconnect with them. Too often the person on the other end of the phone will say, "He died in March, didn't you hear?"

To clearly understand how death will rob us of our friends as we age, consider that a person who had 200 friends, close associates and relatives in his/her life-circle at age 35 will -- at age 75 -- be losing to death one male friend every two months and one female friend every four months. Ten years later, when that person is 85, the rate of loss will have doubled, with a male friend dying every month and a female friend dying every other month. The death rate difference between males and females means that those of us still alive at age 85 will have twice as many women friends as men, assuming we started with an equal number of each in our earlier days.
Fortunately, there is a simple way to plan ahead to cope with this unhappy eventuality: Consciously make and keep younger friends throughout your life--people who, statistically at least, are unlikely to die before you do. At first, this may sound calculating, or even selfish--after all, since authentic friendship comes from the heart, not the head, deliberately deciding to cultivate younger friends would seem to contradict friendship's most basic premise. I don't buy this argument, for two reasons:

  • First, in the larger context of the inevitability of human aging and death, each of us must find a way to live out our final years with dignity and, hopefully, a little joy. Cross-generational friendships are simply one commonsensical and traditional way to do this.
  • Second, and probably more importantly, making good friends with anyone -- young or old -- is never a one-way street. You can't force someone to become or stay your friend. Bridges of affection are built and maintained between people only to the degree that there is both a mutual attraction and sharing, which usually means that each person has something to offer the other. Younger people, for example, are often attracted to the knowledge and experience of a person who has resided on this planet a little longer. And older people are commonly drawn to the energy, fresh ideas, and vivacity of people who are many years younger.
Just in case you are still concerned that deliberately setting out to make younger friends is a mite selfish, it's easy to even the score by making an effort to befriend several people who are older than you are. My experience of doing the interviews for the book Get A Life: You Don't Need A Million to Retire Well has again forcefully reminded me that people who have lived a few years more than I have often have the experience and wisdom to teach me a great deal about how to live a more fulfilling life. I suspect that if you take the time to talk about aging with the older people in your life, you will have a similar experience. We all need good role models when confronting the big transitions in our life, be it leaving home and establishing our independence, establishing our first intimate relationship outside our family, finding and succeeding in our work, or learning how to grow old gracefully.
June 1, 2009

Estate Planning -- the Second Time Around

A second or third marriage, seasoned by age and experience, can bring wonderful comfort and intimacy -- but it can raise a host of legal and practical questions as well. For example, when it comes to making a will and other estate planning arrangements, how can you be fair to everyone you care about in your complicated blended family -- your current spouse, any younger children from your current marriage, your children from previous marriages and your stepchildren all need to be considered.

Who knew balancing the disparate needs of so many people could be so practically and psychologically difficult? And where is the instruction manual which will help you accomplish it?

Start by dividing your task into three steps, your first -- identifying your goals -- being the hardest. For example, if you still have minor children, your first goal might be to provide for them until they reach adulthood. And, of course, it's likely you'll have more than one goal -- perhaps the ongoing care of a special needs child and providing adequate income for a surviving spouse are goals two and three. 

Once your major goals are identified, step two is to discover the legal tools and techniques you'll need to best accomplish them. For example, if you have minor children, you'll need to adopt one of several mechanisms such as a child's trust or the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act to name a financial manager if you die before they are of age.

Step three is to use either self-help tools like Nolo's Online Will and Living Trust or a lawyer (or often a cost-effective combination of the two) to carry out your plans.

Of course, saying all this is far easier than doing it, which is why I strongly recommend Nolo's new book, Estate Planning for Blended Families, by Attorney Richard Barnes. There is simply no comparable source of reliable information for people who need to make an estate plan that balances the needs of a complicated, multi-generational family.