Why I'm not afraid of getting older

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(MoneyWatch) Last month I had major surgery, and I'm now about six weeks into a two- to four-month recovery period. When I think about how I've spent the past six weeks, my days sound a lot like those of my 91-year old mother:

  • My world has gotten a lot smaller. I can't drive or move around very much, so I spend a lot of time in a recliner, reading books and watching movies.
  • When I go for a short walk, I use a hiking pole (I refuse to use a cane!), and I move pretty slowly, taking frequent rests. I'm careful navigating stairs and crowds.
  • I take a nap every afternoon to help regain my strength.
  • I've become acutely aware of every ache and pain, and I pay more attention to daily bodily functions. I have more time to dwell on these things since I'm not very active.
  • I've become very dependent on others, primarily my wife. She makes my meals, cleans the house, helps me with bathing and dressing, administers my medication, and is generally my cheerleader. I can't even tie my own shoes! I make sure to thank her profusely and see that she doesn't get worn out.
  • Time spent with family and friends gives me a great emotional boost. In particular, Skyping with our granddaughter and adult children is precious time indeed.

In short, I'm experiencing the life of an 80- or 90-year old who needs long-term care. There's one glaring difference, however: I know I'll get better, whereas for most older folks, the day-to-day experiences described above are permanent.

A common "guy" reaction after visiting a relative in a nursing home is to say "shoot me before I get like that." Now I see how inappropriate and insensitive that comment is. Life is still very much worth living, and I've found ways to keep useful. I write posts on my laptop while I'm in my recliner, and I email or talk with friends and relatives. I've been giving financial advice to younger relatives, and I can sit at the piano playing music for short periods of time. My world has actually become a little larger in one sense -- through my expanded reading time.

I know it sounds like a cliche, but I'm much more appreciative of just being alive. I pay more attention to my surroundings, I listen more carefully to music and the birds singing, I look at babies and children at the farmer's market, and I stop and smell the roses. I know the value of giving and receiving a smile and encouraging words to friends and strangers. Each morning when I wake up, I look forward to the day. I feel more alive!

Technology is a big help. I still keep in touch with the world through the Internet, doing my banking, paying bills and following my investments. I can see that at some point in the future, I'll become more reliant on so-called assistive technology, such as hearing aids, medical monitoring devices, and specially designed shoes and clothing.

Other lessons I've learned:

  • I need a strategy for addressing the threat of long-term care expenses. If my wife weren't taking care of me, I'd be spending a lot of money on caregivers. I'm very motivated not to become a burden on my family.
  • In order to avoid major medical or caregiver expenses in my older years, taking care of my health through nutrition and exercise is more important to me than ever.
  • I'm very glad I have PPO medical coverage instead of an HMO. I can choose specialists a lot more quickly, and I have a broader choice of doctors, which is important when you have a serious medical condition.

As a result of this glimpse into my future, I'm not afraid of getting older, of getting frail, of my world getting smaller. I know I'll need to make some adjustments, and I realize that connections with friends and family will take on even greater importance. I'll also need to keep learning new things and take advantage of new technology that helps me at any age; it won't serve me very well to become locked into my old habits and ways.

But more importantly, I need to take steps now to make the best of my life later -- it won't be handed to me on a silver platter. My experience and proper planning will help me face the future with confidence. And you can learn something from my experience, too: Don't wait for major illness or surgery to throw you for a loop. Instead, plan ahead now for the future you want later so you're ready for whatever comes your way.

  • Steve Vernon On Twitter»

    View all articles by Steve Vernon on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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