Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What's Really Important?

A recent survey of Canadian homeowners between the ages of 30 and 59 with a household income of more than $50,000 revealed that almost nine out of ten believe that the most important factors in having a "successful" retirement were being debt free, and being healthy. These two factors were more important than living near family, keeping busy with a hobby or volunteer work, or having a broad group of friends.

I work almost daily with seniors in a wide range of financial situations, and with a wide range of health issues. Many of them are in their late eighties and nineties, and some of them have been retired almost as long as they worked for pay. And I can tell you from my observations that the ones who have been happiest in retirement--and I will assume that the word "happy" can and should be substituted for "successful," since enjoying your golden years is what retirement is really all about--are those who have close ties with family and friends, and who have a variety of interests to keep themselves busy.

It's not that being debt free and being healthy aren't important. They are. Very. My parents, aged 75 and 80, are enjoying retirement, but there is no doubt at all in my mind that they would enjoy it more if they weren't paying mortgage and car and credit card payments. And they'd certainly be able to do more and enjoy more if their health was better.

But they ARE enjoying themselves, at least most of the time, which is all anyone can hope for, really.

However, I have known some seniors who retired without having cultivated friendships with a broad base of people, or who moved away from family and friends to be in a place that was either less expensive or had a better climate. and they ultimately ended up being much less happy than those with family and friends to help them through the rough spots. My granparents, for example, moved to Victoria, BC because it was a beautiful city with a milder climate than Toronto. My father, their only child, could only visit occasionally because of the cost, and after they moved they never saw their grandchildren again. The friends they made in Victoria were all of similar age, and my grandmother outlived them all. She died alone.

If that's your idea of a "successful" retirement, then you have my condolences. As for the rest of us, it's fine to be debt-free, and it's great to be healthy. But most of us are relational creatures, and if we fail to build healthy relationships now, when we're in our prime, by the time we hit retirement we may have lost those who should be our "nearest and dearest." New friends, as wonderful as they can be, cannot replace those to whom you were close while your children were growing, those who walked beside you during your darkest times, and who valued your support as they walked through theirs. And nothing can replace the support and companionship of your own children, if you have them.

As for me, yes, I'm working (very slowly) towards a debt-free retirement--details to come in another post. And yes, I'm working towards improving my health--again, more details later. But more important than either of those is nurturing the web of friendships I've developed, especially the friendships I have with my children. Because at the end, when I'm 105 and my health is gone and inflation has eroded the value of whatever wealth I've managed to accumulate, it will be my family and my friends who either care for me themselves, or choose the care providers I'll need. And if my helpers don't like me, I'm really in for a rough ride!

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