According to the panel of experts at this year’s Stratton Lecture on Aging Successfully, planning is the key to a happy life in old age. The May 14 discussion was entitled Where, Why, What, When, and Who?, but moderator William Kettyle, M.D., medical director at MIT Medical, started the evening by asking the audience to consider a few more “W-words.”
“Consider your wants and wishes,” he encouraged the audience. “With whom do you want to live?” he asked. Think about personal wealth, he continued—whether a little or a lot—and if moving to a new part of the country, don’t just focus on practical considerations like the weather; think also about whimsy and wanderlust. Finally, he said, “Think about wellness, both now and in the future. Think about the what-ifs.”
Training for the future
The evening’s first speaker, John R. Anderson, M.D., Chief of Geriatric Medicine at Mt. Auburn Hospital, recommended anticipating, planning, and “training” for aging. “Don’t wait to have health problems,” he said, “even problems as inevitable as decreased physical motion.” Instead, he said, people should be exercising to prevent future issues—what he called “training for old age.” Additionally, he said, looking at housing options now and anticipating future issues can prevent a scramble later on. By planning ahead, he noted, you can find a place that shares your values, that is close to your family and friends, and that offers the resources you need.
Lack of imagination
The second speaker, Lisa D’Ambrosio, Ph.D., a researcher at MIT’s Age Lab, discussed what she called the “Peter Pan complex”—an inability to imagine ourselves old. This is an especially big problem when it comes to housing, she said. “I often see retirees buy homes without considering their future needs,” she noted, such as proximity to public transit and community when driving is no longer an option. Features like wheelchair access, first-floor master bedrooms, bathrooms where grab-bars can be easily installed are not things people talk about when designing houses, she observed. “People don’t want ‘old people things’ in their homes. But considering these options in advance and incorporating them into your design plans may prevent a hasty move later on.”
“Everybody wants to be Betty White,” she concluded. “But it’s is not enough to think about who we want to become; we also have to ask ourselves who we are afraid of becoming.”
Housing options in the Cambridge area
The final speaker, Social Worker Susan Lewin, geriatric care manager at Generations: All About Elders, provided an overview of local housing programs in and around the Cambridge area. Lewin urged listeners to look for “aging service access points—often called “ASAP programs”—that offer town-specific benefits like meals on wheels, daytime activities, and life-alert services. She also promoted “At Home” programs (like Cambridge At Home) that provide lists of vetted professionals ranging from plumbers to at-home nurses. Lewin also discussed the different levels of care available at independent-living communities, assisted-living centers, special-care centers (like those for dementia), and nursing homes.
Although there is no way to know what surprises will come with old age, as Kettyle remarked, planning for life’s what-ifs can make life easier. With sufficient planning, we can enjoy greater happiness, better health, and a graceful transition into old age.