Lessons from a life well lived

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(MoneyWatch) My 92-year-old mother died recently at home, surrounded by her three children, their spouses and two grandchildren. Her life and death provide profound life lessons that I want to share here and in my next post.

My mother had been retired for 32 years and didn't have to worry about outliving her money, even though she lived through four major economic meltdowns. That's because my mother and father took the time to study their options and make smart decisions when my father retired:

  • My father waited to start drawing Social Security until he turned 65, the standard age at that time for collecting the benefits. This helped maximize both the income he received over his lifetime and the widow's benefit payable to my mother after he passed away.
  • My father participated in a defined contribution retirement plan at his work that was converted into a joint and survivor lifetime annuity when he retired. This annuity paid my parents a monthly benefit as long as either one was alive -- for them, that was for more than 32 years.
  • They paid off their mortgage shortly after they retired, dramatically reducing their living expenses. They didn't take out any home equity loans to pay for expensive cars or vacations, and they didn't upgrade to a bigger house or remodel.
  • They also lived within their means, driving their cars into the ground and not buying lots of stuff.

In addition to their finances, they made other smart choices that kept them healthy and happy. They took care of their health by exercising regularly, keeping their weights at healthy levels, not smoking and not abusing alcohol. They took great pleasure in their extended family, often hosting birthday parties at their house and planning vacations that brought us all together. Their example showed us that living a long, prosperous life wasn't rocket science; in their case, they simply did the things that we all know we should do.

When I told relatives and friends about my mother's passing, many shared their memories and impressions of my mother. Kindness, graciousness, resilience, and feminine strength were common themes. Two of my childhood friends remember the smell of fresh cookies that greeted them when they walked through our door.

These conversations helped me realize that reflecting on the impression you'll leave can serve as a powerful guide for how to live your remaining years. People will likely remember how you treated them and how you treated others. They'll remember how you spent your time, your unique expression of your personality and the good deeds you did. This was certainly the case with my mother.

It's also likely your family and friends won't know or remember how much money you had, what kind of car you drove, how you decorated your house or what other possessions you owned. And even if they do remember, they won't care.

Not that you should use this as an excuse to ignore planning financially for your retirement. After all, it takes a minimum amount of money to be in the position to be kind to others and do good deeds. If you're just scraping by to put a roof over your head and food in your mouth, you won't be able to do much else and you may often be frustrated with life. But meeting your basic living needs will enable you to spend time and energy planning the legacy you leave. My parents certainly provided a good example with their careful planning and the memories they left.

How do you want to be remembered by the people you care about? How will you make it happen? Why not write your obituary today, and then find ways to live it for the rest of your years?

One last thought: I highly recommend that you do whatever it takes to help your parents when they reach the end of their lives. Put your life on pause. Take the time to help manage their care so that they're comfortable and feel loved. Spend time with your siblings and relatives, and carry out your parents' wishes. Take the time to reminisce, and to honor and celebrate their lives -- you won't regret it.

I acknowledge that not everybody is in a position to do this, and I'm not judging anybody for their choices. I'm just sharing some insights from my experience.

Stay tuned for my next post, which shares some lessons I learned from my mother's final days.

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    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.