Hurricane Methuselah is on its way: why won’t we prepare for old age?

Soldiers talk to a man swimming in wild surf during Hurricane Ike. In the background a man holds a baby in the surf.

No, don’t swim in a hurricane. No, don’t take your baby into the wild surf.

Robert Meyer asked the question in the Washington Post: Why do people stay put during hurricanes? Howard Gleckman in Forbes Magazine sees exactly the same psychology at work in our refusal to prepare for old age. He’s talking about financial preparation, but the message applies equally to general preparation — staying fit or getting fit, and paying attention to sleep and friendships, for example. (Hey, boot camp for the bonus years, anyone?)

Why, and why? are my favourite questions. I’ve adapted the reasons cited by Meyer and Gleckman for a different audience, those who can see old age approaching but don’t take action to protect their own future needs.

Excessive optimism.  “Sure, I know people get old and frail, but it won’t happen to me.”

Herd thinking: Others you know don’t prepare so neither do you.

Myopia : We don’t plan ahead because it can be expensive or inconvenient. “Let’s  just live for the day, age is just a number…”

Amnesia: Bad memories fade quickly. We forget what it was like when our dad was failing and didn’t have the support he needed.

Inertia and simplification: The amount of information about ageing is overwhelming. People don’t understand it. Faced with so many choices, we freeze, and do nothing.

I suspect there’s one more reason:
Excessive pessimism and fear: 
We anticipate the worst possible old age. We’re afraid of being poor, lonely, in pain, dead. The prospect seems so dreadful that we are paralyzed.

Do you agree? Do you recognise any of these defence mechanisms in yourself? What reasons do you believe are behind this fascinating and very human tendency to ignore the obvious when it comes to matters of ageing and death? I think many readers would like to know about your thoughts, feelings, and opinions.

  1. Why do people stay put in hurricanes? Robert J Meyer in WP
  2. What do frail old age and Hurricane Florence and frail old age have in common? Howard Gleckman in Forbes
  3. Boot camp for the bonus years
  4. Photo public domain from Defense.gov archives

34 thoughts on “Hurricane Methuselah is on its way: why won’t we prepare for old age?

  1. Rainee says:

    I think pessimism and fear play a large part. Denial and perhaps ignorance are also factors. For me the hardest part is changing my mindset about the benefits of physical fitness with a default attitude that it is too hard. I am working on that. 🏋

    1. That’s wonderful, Rainee. It’s a big mind shift. The beauty is that when you change one single thing, like getting a fitness regime, other things change all by themselves, in a good way.

      1. I couldn’t agree more. I didn’t start my “fitness regime” until I was almost 60. Four and a half years later, and I think I might be in the best shape of my life. Still trying to fit all the pieces together, and things shift from time to time. It’s a never ending process but so very positive and so worth the effort. Good luck Rainee!

  2. srbottch says:

    Sad cases of putting off
    , or at least postponing, the inevitable. Nice article.

    1. Thanks. I know I’m guilty of this too.

    2. Karen Burns says:

      I agree completely! Inertia is a powerful force that keeps me on the couch in denial. Thanks for writing this Rachel. I’m inspired to get up and to something proactive. i’m just not sure what that is.

      1. It will pop up at you out of nowhere. You might want to glance at my boot camp list for ideas…

  3. cedar51 says:

    I’ve had a number of “point” move off sideways – when I didn’t expect it.

    my married life came apart; house and life disappeared and then less than decade late – when I became ill which eventually became a chronic health issue which is still with me today, although there were times when all was well

    One when I was advised by a doctor to “slow down” this in relationship to finding I had a heart murmur – I could still walk as far as I like and more but not at my usual fast pace. Took months to remember to slow down… but in actual fact it seemed to pay off as I was just as fit as I was…and I didn’t tire as quickly.

    a few weeks ago a new object arrived in my life, I ended up in hospital with acute surgery needs…and I kept thinking it would be like all other issues, sent home with a “pill” – I’m not really old…at all and now I’m having to rest and recover because a “pill wasn’t going to fix it”

    I can’t fix my finances all that well, but I do have them under control – the bit I don’t have under control is “home” – I am at the mercy of the private rental system – touch wood I’m safe for now here…

    Life is often like a chocolate box – the flavours just have a way of changing… but if you eat them in some kind of order that suits your tastes…it probably going to work out just fine!

    1. You’re right, they do. All our planning can unravel — but it’s still worth doing.

  4. haywardhelen says:

    I think that not knowing what is coming is too easiIy confIated with fearing what is coming –
    Thanks for your thoughtfuI piece!

    1. I think that does happen. Thank you Helen!

  5. When we were young we could not imagine ourselves old, and so preparing for something we could not even imagine would not occur to us. As we aged and became more responsible and learned that we were no longer the centre of our own world i.e we had children and elderly parents to consider. We began to understand the cycle of life. I read recently, I can’t remember which blog it was, that fear is akin to excitement. The suggestion was that instead of thinking in a fearful way we respond in an excited manner to whatever the challenge may be. I like the idea a lot. Of course everything depends on personal circumstances, but I am enjoying ageing, you can only plan to a certain extent (our Government already has its eyes on our superannuation for example). And financially, how much is ever enough? The number is changed depending who you speak to.

    1. Thanks for the insight into the excitement factor in fear. (I’d always thought the reverse: that all excitement contains an element of fear — otherwise, where’s the thrill?) It’s great to read your very positive words.

  6. Behind the Story says:

    This week in the United States as Hurricane Florence approaches, reporters are interviewing people who don’t take government advice to evacuate vulnerable locations and showing those who have needed rescuing. Some people figure they can handle the storm. They’ve taken precautions; they’ve been through other hurricanes. One girl said she likes the adrenaline rush. But the people who ended up needed to be rescued were the poor who had no place to go and no money or car to get there and the poor and disabled or seriously sick.

    So using your analogy, perhaps most people who are found seriously wanting in their preparation for old age have good reason. On the other hand, those of us who have the good fortune to be able to prepare, should do our best to prepare for our future needs. For me, inertia keeps me from doing as much as I can.

    1. I well believe what you say, and it’s sobering information. As for inertia, it has a paradoxical strength!

  7. lifecameos says:

    Information overload definitely does not help. Also being single for quite a while in my later years I had so many calls on my finances in order to have my own home. I have managed to retire with my own home, which is a help. But I am wondering how well I will afford medical help.

    1. Retiring with your own home is fantastic! And I expect you’ll make good decisions.

      1. lifecameos says:

        I have to. My family’s genes make it pressing to have colonoscopies periodically – starting at the end of the week. Not covered by the public health system until the cancer arrives and actually presents with systems. Not good for those of us born from 1946 onwards.

      2. Oh what torture that must be those regular check-ups. But as you say, you have to. Kia kaha.

  8. Claudette says:

    My husband thinks people work hard for their possessions (homes and personal belongings) and it’s hard to leave behind for not just the potential destruction of a natural event but for the looters… it’s tough to wrap my head around this. I feel possessive of my stuff but in a life/death situation would I leave it behind? I’d like to say yes, but I haven’t been through a catastrophic weather event so I don’t know how I’d react.

    I watch images on TV with Florence and previous hurricanes, and I do find myself shaking my head. Take it seriously, I want to scream at people wandering the beach…

    Stay safe.

  9. This is a great and thoughtful post. I’m right in the thick of what you’re talking about–related to aging, caring and preparing myself. Aging is like being part of a vast, unexplored wasteland no one tells you about until you’re there.

    1. Well said! Though I wonder if they did tell me but I wasn’t ready or able to listen. That would figure.

  10. rummuser says:

    I believe that when the time comes, I will have to go and that there is nothing I can do to either postpone it or prevent it. I have prepared myself for the eventuality to the best of my ability and if an occasion like the hurricane hits the area where I live, I would take all such steps as necessary to save as much of my belongings and family besides myself. If it means going off to a safer place, I would without hesitation.

    1. You have prepared. You don’t have your head in the sand. That’s quite an achievement.

  11. Robyn Haynes says:

    Thought provoking Rachel. I do recognise some of that thinking in myself but then I push it aside for another day 🙂

    1. Ha ha! Look, I wasn’t judging this human behaviour, I’m just interested. But you know that.

      1. Robyn Haynes says:

        Of course. I like the way you make me examine this sort of behaviour in myself. And I was being facetious☺️

  12. This current hurricane in North Carolina really got my wife and I talking about how we planned (or didn’t) for past ones here in Florida. I think all too often we become calloused by the reporting of tragedies (human and natural) — media saturation in a way that we don’t get all the right messages from them. It’s to remember that all hurricanes are different. – Marty

  13. jameswharris says:

    I’ve often thought we should prepare and plan for the last third of life like we did for the second. Everyone asks young people in the first third of life, “What are you going to do when you grow up?” I think the last third of life should have ambitions and goals too.

    I have stayed through hurricanes. You stay because going is so damn inconvenient. You hope things will be alright. However, that was long ago, and I’d probably flee a hurricane today.

    The Guardian today (9/24) is running a series of articles about climate change refugees. People are already moving away from dangerous areas, but they said most people will wait until its almost impossible to stay.

    Many of my friends complain I’m too bleak because I talk about preparing for the future. Most of my friends don’t like thinking about it.

  14. I never feel old. So when I do feel old, then I guess I will be.

    1. I suppose so!

  15. Ann Coleman says:

    I think denial is a big part of it, too. We know we aren’t adequately prepared for our old age, and it’s such a worrisome subject that we just back away from it and keep living our lives, desperately believing that “it will all work out.” And maybe that comes from living a life where the things we worry about often don’t even happen, and the stuff we never even see coming is what knocks us flat? Hard to say.
    As for not evacuating in a hurricane, I think that is the “it won’t happen to me” syndrome, or an unwillingness to acknowledge how vulnerable we really are. Personally, if I knew a hurricane was coming, I’d pack up and out of there so fast!

  16. Jean says:

    I think a lot of people find it hard to leave their home, possessions behind after working hard for them. I was evacuated along with 100,000 people in our area when the river banks overflowed and caused several billion dollars of flood damage.

    I was in another province for 1 wk. where our building had no power, no working elevator….

    For old age, I worry not about my fitness/health as much as my brain functioning well. This is to me, most important.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That must have been painful at the time and the repercussions carry on, too. About the brain — it’s for my brain’s sake that I keep as fit as I can for as long as I can!

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