Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Retirement and resilience

Recently I had one of those “milestone” birthdays.  You know, the ones that end in “0” and remind you that you’re closer to mortality than birth.  The ones that remind you that your body’s not as resilient as it once was.  The ones where you vow to “not go gentle into that good night.”  The ones where you begin to think about retirement.

Many of us* fight the idea of retirement because we share the common perception of our youth-oriented cultures that retirement means we’re old.  That we can no longer cope.  That the only reason we’re not on the scrap heap of life is that no one could find a big enough shovel.

However, as is so often the case, perception is a caricature of reality.  The reality is much more nuanced; retirees generally fall (no pun intended!) along a spectrum – from “go-go” at one end to “slow-go” and finally “no-go.”  This spectrum is a complex combination of physical, financial, and social attributes that determine each retiree’s resilience.  It is not determined by age so much as it is by strength and vitality.

The go-go’ers

In general, this group is characterized by strength – still physically active, have disposable incomes, and – perhaps most importantly – are socially involved.  These are the men and women you’ll see building Habitat for Humanity houses; and are the first ones called when volunteers are needed.  The go-go’ers tend to be very risk-tolerant.  Since they are retired, they have few responsibilities and that sometimes leads them to act irresponsibly (sort of like tourists on vacation!).  In the US, this translates into a >70% increase in sexually transmitted diseases in many retiree communities.

But – surprising to some – the go-go’ers are among the best at coping with disaster.  In addition to physical and financial health, they tend to have social networks that are actively maintained.  They also tend to have some experience with adversity and so are not thrown for a loop when Mother Nature hands them a hand grenade.

The slow-go’ers

This group is characterized by declining strength – usually either financial or physical – that often manifests itself in anti-social or unsocial behavior.  The epidemic of elderly crime in Japan (where the number of criminals over 65 is greater than the number of teenage criminals) is a great example.  Even a barebones standard of living costs an elderly Japanese retiree about 25% more than the basic state pension (ca $7,000).  As a result, about 1 in 8 shoplifters are elderly AND have been incarcerated at least six times.  The allure of free food, housing and medical care evidently overcomes the moral scruples of those who see their savings being whittled away year-by-year by negative interest rates.  A similar specter appears to be looming in many other parts of Asia and in Latin America.  And in the US, Aon Hewitt estimates that only two in five current workers will be financially secure enough to retire at 65 (This partially explains why so many US seniors are remaining in the workforce past 65.).

The slow-go’ers declining strength means that they are less able to adapt to change.  For example, after the tornadoes in Alabama large numbers of the elderly homeowners chose not to rebuild their homes:  who needs a mortgage on a fixed income?  Their social networks are also beginning to crack – friends and neighbors and family are dying or moving away.

The no-go’ers

As the name implies, this group’s fragility hampers their ability to see the world.  Many have outlived their savings.  Others are physically frail.  Perhaps the greatest risk the no-go’ers face is the slow death of isolation.  Their social networks are a distant memory.  They become much more change-resistant which can lead to oddly risky behavior (Ever tried to take the car keys away from your parents?).  Their social isolation leads to a mental stagnation that puts blinders on even the most intelligent.

Perhaps not so surprisingly, one of the best things for the no-go’ers is to age in place.  Certainly their physical needs may be better met in an assisted living facility, but the social interactions inherent in homeownership can hold isolation at bay – and Man, as a social animal, must have those human interactions to maintain his/her resilience.

By the year 2050, one in six people in the world will be over 65. This will constitute a challenge mankind has never faced before.  All of us are progressing across the spectrum from “Go-Go” to “No-Go.”  It is too easy to focus on our weaknesses as we approach retirement.  But we must tend to our strengths for they are the source of our resilience.

*  Not me, however.  I’m fighting retirement because I dread the nearly infinite “honey-do” list of “She Who Must Be Obeyed.”