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Avoiding an Entitlement Nightmare by Aging Responsibly

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

At a recent National Speakers Association convention, futurist Ken Dychtwald shared a startling fact, "Two-thirds of the people who have ever lived past 65 throughout history are alive today." That's not surprising when he reports that that for 99% of human history life expectancy was 18 years of age. By 1900, it was only 47.

But by 2030, over 20% of America's population could be over 65, and they'll expect the government to honor its promise to take care of their retirement and healthcare needs for the rest of their lives. They'll have more political clout to demand it than they have now. If not dealt with soon, funding their entitlements may very well bring America to its knees.

When German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck first set 65 as the age for receiving state pensions in 1889, life expectancy was 45 years of age. Using that difference from our current life expectancy of 78, today we'd start benefits at 98.

That won't fly in this age of entitlement, but politicians on both sides of the aisle better start facing reality. We need bold leaders willing to make dramatic changes to our outdated and underfunded Social Security and Medicare system so that future generations to avoid a financial collapse.

Unfortunately, expecting bold leaders to emerge from our promise more, spend more, owe more political culture seems Pollyanna at best. As Will Rogers said, "We could certainly slow the aging process down if it had to work its way through Congress." Waiting for bankruptcy and chaos on the streets is not leadership. But besides voting for politicians who will tackle the entitlement addiction, what can citizens do to age responsibly?

Start by facing the challenge. Seeing families cope with the financial and health challenges of aging is sobering. Even with planning and resources, Social Security, Medicare, long-term care insurance and offspring who can afford to help, the financial and time strain on caregivers can tax all involved. Just remember, it's not the number of years, but the quality of the life lived that determines whether a long life is a blessing or a curse.

You can't control everything that happens to you as you age, but you can take responsibility for improving your odds of aging well. Some advice is obvious. Pay off debts early. Save more. Spend less. Think simple. Downsize. Get rid of stuff you don't need. And of course, spend time with grandkids. Love on them as they love on you. But if you want them to keep loving you, do what you can to make it less likely you will ever become a burden.

Use it or lose it. Phyllis Diller loves to say, "Maybe it's true that life begins at 50... but everything else starts to wear out, fall out, or spread out." It's no wonder seniors are "spreading out" when the average senior watches 48 hours of TV every week. Aging well requires developing exercise and eating habits that will give you a body ready for action. What's the best exercise? The one you'll do consistently. Trade watching more TV movies for more movement.

Keep working as long as you love it. Instead of sliding into retirement, invest in reenergizing and reinventing yourself. You become an old dog when you stop doing new tricks. Invest 5-10% of your time in developing a Plan B--a career or side business you can continue beyond your retirement. Many companies are creating part-time, project-limited career options for seniors with the right skills and experience. Other seniors have started service businesses out of their homes. As a professional speaker, I treasure the words of George Burns, "I can't die; I'm booked."

With aging, more and more of your friends and loved ones pass away. One woman shared her Senility Prayer: "Grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into the ones I do, and the eyesight to tell the difference.”One of the best ways to find and nurture new caring relationships is to participate in a faith community of your choice. Not only will you nurture your faith and connection to God; you'll find people of all ages who care about you. You will find strength both in helping and in being helped.

Finally, take aging seriously, and yourself lightly. Art Gliner had a great perspective: "We're only young once, but with humor, we can be immature forever." When you stop laughing, you become "old" faster! Read funny books. Watch comedies. Spend time with people who love to laugh. Laughter is a tonic for the soul that can bring momentary joy into the darkest of your days. Rest assured that aging will give you reasons to laugh or to cry. Choose more laughter, and start by laughing a bit more at yourself.

James Dean once said, "Dream as if you'll live forever. Live as if you'll die today." His premature death proved that dreams don't ensure a long life. So don't just dream. Plan and develop your life-affirming habits that will a long life worth living more likely. Then you can live each day with gusto as if it might be your last, because someday it will be.

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