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Redefining Health and Happiness in the Second Half of Life?

happy senior coupleQ. My friend told me that he heard that reputable research involving thousands of people of all ages shows that we are happier as we get older, but I don’t see how that can be possible. With health and memory concerns, worries about running out of money in retirement, and fears about losing independence as we get older, how can we be happier as we get older? If you know about such research can you please share, and if this is true, what can I do to alleviate my concerns and enjoy getting older myself? Thanks for your help!

A. It’s true what your friend says, at least according to AARP Research, in collaboration with National Geographic. Their recent combined survey says that overall self-reported happiness grows with age, with a striking spike among those ages 70-plus! In fact, 34 percent of adults 80-plus and 27 percent of those in their 70s report that they are “very happy,” compared to 21 percent of those 60 to 69, 18 percent of those 50 to 59, and 16 percent of those 40 to 49.

The “Second Half of Life” Survey

Conducted in January 2022, a 15-minute survey of 2,580 US adults ages 18-plus found that older adults recognize the challenges of growing older but worry about them less as the years pass.

The “Second Half of Life Study” explored how Americans perceive their current life, their expectations for the future, and their perceptions of aging in general, as we emerge from the COVID pandemic. These are some of the findings based on age of participants.

  • Under 40: This age group is currently focused on multiple facets of their life which for some means finding a suitable partner, having children, developing their careers, caring for loved ones, and beginning to save for retirement. They have strong expectations that they will see improvements in finances, relationships, and quality of life as they get older.
    • Top concerns for second half of life are brain health, independence, and finances.
    • Top health concerns as they get older include emotional health; heart health; cancer risk; stamina, strength, and flexibility; future loss of memory; and ongoing chronic pain.
  • 40-49: Middle age is the time where life’s burdens take on the greatest prominence. Adults in their 40s reported higher levels of stress and worry and lower levels of life satisfaction and health than older Americans. Despite being the group with the lowest incidence of serious health conditions, cancer is a big fear around aging among this age group. This group is also among the highest when it comes to the fear of death, as many are caregivers for aging family members with serious illnesses, such as dementia.
    • Top concerns for second half of life are brain health, independence, and relationships.
    • Top health concerns as they get older include emotional health; recurring pains; cancer risk; future loss of memory; diminished eyesight.
  • 50-59: A stronger focus on the importance of mobility and independence emerges for this age group. Primary health concerns shift from disease to mobility. Expectations on retirement travel begin to drop. Finances continue to improve and personal choice being the main driver of retirement starts to become clear.
    • Top concerns for second half of life continue to be brain health, independence, and relationships.
    • Top health concerns as they get older include stamina, strength and flexibility; recurring pains; heart health; future loss of memory; loss of mobility, and ongoing chronic pain.
  • 60-69: Retirement becomes a reality for most and it allows more time for other priorities. Relationships become more meaningful. There is an increase in the desire to slow aging and that is reflected in taking actions including steps to improve and maintain health. Engagement in end-of-life planning (financial and medical documents) sees a noticeable increase and an upswing in feeling prepared for death is observed.
    • Top concerns for second half of life are brain health, independence, and health in general.
    • Top health concerns as they get older include stamina, strength, and flexibility; recurring pains; heart health; future loss of memory; loss of mobility, and loss of cognitive abilities.
  • 70-79: According to the study, older Americans are not only the happiest adult Americans as a whole, but also consider themselves healthier and more financially secure than those in their 40s and 50s. The study result showed that relationships become a primary focus for those ages 70-79. Health concerns continue to concentrate around mobility and independence. Fear of death continues to decline, and most have completed end-of-life documents (financial and medical) at this point. Being more prepared correlates with a shift in the desire for a quick, unexpected passing.
    • Top concerns for second half of life are relationships; and living where desired.
    • Top health concerns as they get older include stamina, strength and flexibility; recurring pains; heart health; future loss of memory; loss of mobility, and loss of strength.
  • 80-plus: About two-thirds of adults over 80 said that they were living their “best possible life” or close to it, compared with just 1 in 5 younger adults. Relationships, wealth, and quality of life all peak with the 80-plus cohort as does the level of concern with loss of mobility and independence. Relationships become the clear centerpiece. There is less of a desire to slow aging or add 10 years as compared to earlier age groups. Most have completed end-of-life documents. This age group feels the most prepared for death.
    • Top concerns for second half of life continue to be brain health, relationships; independence; and living where desired.
    • Top health concerns as they get older continue to include stamina, strength, and flexibility; recurring pains; heart health; future loss of memory; loss of mobility, and loss of strength.

Severe Design Flaws in the Study?

The good news is that this study found that older Americans are not only the happiest adult Americans as a whole, but also consider themselves healthier and more financially secure than those in their 40s and 50s. However, the bad news is, in my opinion, that the study design was seriously flawed in several respects, which likely resulted in erroneous findings when it comes to elders considering themselves “financially secure.” Here are some of the poorly worded survey questions and limited response choices provided by the survey:

  • The study did not ask whether participants were concerned about winding up in an assisted living facility or a nursing home and running out of money, which are among the main concerns that I hear from my clients every day.
  • The study did not explain how expensive it is to wind up in an assisted living facility ($5000-$10,000 per month) or a nursing home ($10,000-$15,000 per month).
  • In fact the study barely asked any questions about long-term care concerns or long-term care expenses, and used confusing language when it did ask about this topic.
  • For example, the study asked: “If continued care or assistance is needed moving forward, from whom do you expect to get this support?” It did not define “continued care” or “assistance,” and never used the terms “assisted living” or “nursing home care.” This likely resulted in poor quality answers because the undefined phrase “continued care or assistance” does not mean that people were thinking about the incredibly high costs of assisted living facilities or nursing homes.
  • In another example, the study asked: “If care or assistance is needed in your advanced age, from whom do you expect to get support?” In the multiple-choice answers they provided, they completely failed to list an assisted living facility or a nursing home or any kind of long-term care facility as an option.
  • In yet another example of using incredibly confusing language, the study asked: “Regarding the care or assistance that is needed in your advanced age, how do you intend to pay for care or assistance in your advanced age?” The multiple-choice answers offered were:
    • With savings
    • I do not have a plan yet
    • With elder insurance of a long-term care insurance policy
    • From the sale of a home or other primary asset
    • Some other way
    • Don’t Know
  • Besides the confusion again of not mentioning assisted living facilities or nursing homes, the choice of “elder insurance of a long-term care insurance policy” is extremely confusing because there is no such thing as “elder insurance.” Using this erroneous and undefined term may have been very confusing to study participants, because many people may have believed that “elder insurance” equated to Medicare because of the erroneous belief held by at least 60 percent of elders (based on my experience in conducting surveys) that Medicare, which is health insurance primarily for elders, will pay for long-term care. As I have explained many times in prior newsletters, Medicare does not pay for long-term care, but rather only for hospitalization and doctors’ bills and short-term rehabilitation after a hospitalization, which typically takes place in a nursing home.

Overall Themes of the Study

For the study, more than 2,500 Americans answered questions about their lives and hopes. There were some surprises in the findings. “Most people are optimistic about aging and do not see it as a bad thing,” notes Debra Whitman, AARP’s chief public policy officer. “People in their 70s and 80s are uplifting examples of resilience because they become more realistic about the changes that happen and are more likely to be happy.” These are some of the overall themes from all of the respondents:

  • Relationships Matter: Friends, family, and community are the “hallmarks of finding happiness,” the study revealed. Relationships become “a central feature and a source of purpose and joy” as people age, particularly in retirement.
  • Stress, Anxiety, and Fear Diminish with Age: Fear of death actually decreases as older adults focus on planning to minimize the burden and pain of others and finding peace.
  • Not Counting Years: Individuals are more attuned to the quality of their lives vs. the quantity; with respondents reporting “a long life should be gratifying, not simply a march through time.”
  • Health and Wealth in Retirement: In life’s second half, this study found that wealth and retirement concerns are secondary to health concerns. According to the responses to this study, financial concerns actually decrease with age, while older adults reported a “stronger focus on the ability to do what they love now that they have the time for it.” Although these are wonderful findings, I do not believe they reflect the reality because of the poor design of the survey, as I have explained above.
  • Redefining ‘Good Health’: Participants reported that good health is “being independent, mobile and of strong mind.” AARP feels that doctors should adapt their mindset that even with cancer, diabetes, or other chronic conditions – one can still be healthy IF these three goals are achieved.
  • Accepting End-of-Life Choices: Survey respondents were very clear that while good health needs a broader definition, declining health requires unconditional acceptance. They specifically desire a medical system that is more accommodating and accepting of end-of-life choices.
  • Embracing Aging at Home: Most Americans want to age in place, but few homes are built to meet this desire. AARP calls upon the housing industry to create “forever homes” that are suited for multigenerational needs “from the very first nail.”
  • Educating Young Adults about Retirement Finances: Younger adults are typically not saving enough and are overall unaware of how much they will really need to retire. Parents, employers, and policymakers all have a role to play in advancing this knowledge.
  • Making Support in Middle Age a Priority: Those in their 40s and 50s face the greatest societal pressures of raising teenagers and caring for aging parents. Employers, community organizations, and individuals who adopt a culture of support in this midlife season can make an unrivaled impact on those enduring the sandwich generation challenges.
  • Focusing on Health Now: All ages need to focus on a healthy lifestyle of eating well, exercising, and maintaining positive attitudes. Yet currently, retirees model these priorities much more than adults in their 30s, 40s, and 50s.

Do the Responses from the Survey Resonate with You?

When you read the responses based on age and in general, do they resonate with you? For more details on the questions that participants were asked you can view the questionnaire here and use it to think about your own views on things as you and your loved ones are getting older.

In the meantime, throughout all of the age groups described in the survey, it is important to plan for your future and your loved ones. Our firm is dedicated to helping protect seniors by preserving dignity, quality of life, and financial security. If you have not done Long-Term Care Planning, Estate Planning, or Incapacity Planning (or had your Planning documents reviewed in the past several years), or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care, please call us to make an appointment for an initial consultation:

Elder Law Attorney Fairfax: 703-691-1888
Elder Law Attorney Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435
Elder Law Attorney Rockville: 301-519-8041
Elder Law Attorney DC: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.