Friday, October 26, 2007

Retirement Planning and Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda (or Old Age and Health, Part Two)

Retirement Planning and Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda (or Old Age and Health, Part Two)

The poem below, because of copyright restrictions and the fact the Shel Silverstein’s people never got back to me after I requested permission to include it in the book goes something like this:

By Shel Silverstein

    All the Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas
    Layin' in the sun,
    Talkin' 'bout the things
    They woulda coulda shoulda done...
    But those Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas
    All ran away and hid
    From one little Did.

While the previous post here outlined some of the serious health risks that are under-realized and little acknowledged in most retirement plans, I wanted to spend a moment explaining some of the references that I used for this section.

We will not be the retirees in the commercials. This is bad news for some us and a grim reality for others. The idea that we will enter old age in a different physical condition than we are currenlty in is highly likely. For most of us, that condition will not mean an improved state but rather one that is in need of repair.

We are the woulda-coulda-shouldas that scrimped and saved, lost sleep over money, worked too, too hard, and lived perhaps a bit too well. But living well will present its problems sometime in the future as our bodies will ask us, “what exactly did you do?”

Consider Ellie Metchnikoff (1845-1916), a Russian biologist who studied in Russia and Germany, and after working with Pasteur in Paris, became deputy director of the Pasteur Institute in 1904. He also won the Nobel prize in 1908 for medicine for his work in immunology.

As a biologist, he noticed that his advancing age was bound to complicate things for him. In the preface of his book The Prolongation of Life: Optimistic Studies also written by Ilya Ilyich Metchnikoff and Peter Chalmers Mitchell he wrote: “It is, of course, quite natural that a biologist whose attention has been aroused by noticing in his own case the phenomena of precocious old age should turn to the study of it. Because it is equally plain that such a study could give hope of resisting the decay of an organism which had already for many years been growing old.”

As a scientist, he began his research by looking at the historical and cultural ways peoples around the world treated their elderly members. He was well aware of how the old were thought of in Europe during his time. The sight of these people with the ravages that time took on the body concerned him. What Metchnikoff found made him pause asking why those cultures developed the attitudes toward the elderly and the way they treated their old.

The Melanesian islanders buried their old tribe members alive when they reached a point of uselessness. Natives of Tierra del Fuego would eat an elderly woman in times of famine, he wrote in cool style of an academic, because “dogs could catch seals, whilst old women could not do so.”

But we are civilized now. Right? At the time Metchnikoff wrote his book, a follow-up to his book Nature of Man, old age was nothing to look forward to. Suicide was rampant among the elderly of Metchnikoff’s era, with rates running almost twice that of any other age group. Murder of the old, as was discussed in Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” seemed to be justified because of the childlessness, worthlessness, ill-temperedness and poor health of an old woman one might encounter was thought to be “a nuisance to everyone. She does not even now why she should live”.

A Danish law passed in 1891 began what could have been the first governmental type intervention into the deteriorating circumstances of the elderly. Metchnikoff was a biologist and his primary concern was how we age, why we do so in such different degrees and what if anything can be done to cease or at least slow the process. He looked at numerous sources for his answer from the cellular level to the giant Dragon Tree, the baobab, the cypress and of course, the one we are most familiar with, the sequoia of California.

I do however mention Sanford Bennett in the book and mostly to encourage those of use who have abused our bodies more than just a tad over our lifetimes. He found himself, as he writes in his 1912 edition of Old Age: Its Cause and Prevention: The Story of an Old Body and Face Made Young., republished in 2003 by Kessinger Press, “At fifty, I was a physically old man. Many years of a too active business career had resulted in a general physical breakdown.” He continues by describing his state as “wrinkled, partially bald, cheeks sunken, face drawn and haggard, muscles atrophied and thirty years of chronic dyspepsia.” For those of you who may not know what dyspepsia is, the word was and still is a more medical term for upset stomach and acid indigestion. That, he says later caused him to develop a “catarrh” (kind of like a running nose in your gut – it just doesn’t sound very pleasant) “of the stomach”.

Bennett at age 50

But Bennett turned that physical deterioration around as he developed an exercise routine, researched dietary guidelines and wrote his experiences down if only to authenticate his health reversal. Like Metchnikoff, he spent a good deal of time studying the ill effects of aging and developed a way to fix what nature had wronged.

Bennett at age 72

He writes that he was unable to find adequate information about the subject largely because no one prior to him had experienced what he had. So he offered to the public what may have been the first self help book for health designed for the layman.

Retirement planning, like the claim made by Bennett, is not something that you have to accept at face value for what it is. If you focus on your health as an important attribute to a successful plan, the financial end of the equation may just fall right into place.

To answer your question: No. Being healthy will not make you financially savvy. That’s why you have me. But you cannot ignore the cost of poor health on your retirement. We are all aware of the pressures already being exerted on our health system and movement to push more and more of those costs and as well as the decisions of how that care should transpire back to the private citizen.

This will not be the last time we touch on the topic of health and the cost it tallies against your best retirement goals. Poor health almost acts like a tax on those savings, which is yet another important topic we will consider further along.