Unless you die earlier than you need to, the last years of your life generally suck.
When planning out the course of our lives, many of us see retirement as our “golden years.” Not just the slow wind-down of our lifespan, but the culmination of a long-time goal: the end of the “ugh I have to go to work again today” phase of our lives. It means the freedom to do, well, whatever we want.
It’s something we aspire to, and often make sacrifices to attain. We work harder—postponing important personal goals—during our “working years” to help ensure that we have a better retirement. We don’t take that bucket list trip, or we spend the extra weekends pounding out work deliverables in order to “get ahead.” We defer experiences we want to have. We don't save time or energy for the things we say we really care about.
In short, we try to play the marshmallow game to win both marshmallows.
But what if the last several years of your life won’t be fun, no matter what you have planned for it? Odds are good that it’s going to suck—at least in comparison to your life right now. Put another way, what if the second marshmallow is disgustingly stale? Or maybe more to the point, what if you wait too long and both marshmallows are stale?
What to expect when you’re old
There’s a roughly 50% chance that your partner will die before you. You’ll spend an increasingly large portion of your life in doctors appointments, and awaiting test results, and being seen by various specialists worried about various ailments. You may have significant long-term health issues that detract from your quality of life. Many of your friends will die, or move away to be closer to family or medical services. Small injuries may have big consequences, disrupting or potentially ending your ability to enjoy the hobbies you love. Various body parts won’t work as they used to. You’ll slowly (or sometimes quite quickly) lose important parts of your independence. You’ll get more forgetful, and probably feel bad about it. Your hearing, eyesight, finger dexterity, strength, and mobility will all decrease. You may need daily assistance to complete many of the relatively routine daily tasks of living.
In short, at some point, your life will very likely not be as you’d like it to be.
A new perspective
Now, that doesn’t mean that life will be horrible. You’ll probably have a much better perspective on what really matters in life. You may be very grateful for the opportunity to live yet another day, even if it doesn't look like you might have expected it to a decade before. You’ll adapt, as best you can.
But you won’t be living the same life you did before.
It’s important to plan ahead for this period of your life. Trust me—if you don’t, you may not have much input into the decisions that must be made. It’s also a tremendous burden to push onto your partner, or children, or siblings, or whomever will have to do it for you.
How to plan for your last years
When I do this mental exercise, the first thing that stands out is that it’s a period for which I shouldn’t optimize for doing fun things. Simply put, I know those last few years of my life won’t be fun. They’ll be challenging. I’ll have increasingly little control over my daily life. I won’t need money for travel, as I likely won’t be doing any. In fact, there’s not much “extra” money can do for you.
That doesn’t mean I should spend it all and leave no resources available for those last years. Not at all. Make your last years as good as you can; just don’t count on those years being nearly as good as the previous ones were. Once you cover your basic living costs, you won’t need much more—there’s no additional utility in having a nicer house, or a nicer car, or even a nicer TV.
You’ll want enough resources for good care, and a comfortable place to live, and some basic spending money. But there’s just no marginal benefit in having expensive versions of any of those things. They don’t move the happiness needle at all by that point (and they probably never did to begin with).
What this means to me
So when I think about the last stage of my life—the one that will likely suck—I want to have accomplished everything I wanted before that time arrives.
That means not deferring the experiences I want to have now for the possibly mythical retirement years I am looking forward to. Because not all of those years will be grand. Some—hopefully. But not all of them.
So do more now.
Do it when you can really enjoy it.
And paired with the compounding nature of memories, this will provide you with far greater personal value over the course of your life than waiting until late in life to have the experience.
Better yet, when you do finally reach that stage of older age when you encounter more of the suck, you’ll feel good to know that you predicted this—you did the important stuff early. You front-loaded valuable experiences. You accomplished what you wanted to. You had your grand experiences already, when you could most enjoy them.
I suspect that will make the transition to those sucky years just a bit easier.