By Dr. Sandra Timmermann

As the country begins to open up after requiring people to shelter in place for the past several weeks, retirees are facing a dilemma different from other age groups. They have to decide how much risk they should take knowing that they are in a vulnerable group. Will they be willing to go to grocery stores, to restaurants, or to get their hair cut, or should they remain in semi-quarantine? Their attitudes and behaviors, like other age groups, run the gamut from being extremely cautious to overconfident. Like the risk tolerance tool that financial services professionals use with their clients, there is great variation in risk-taking behavior. Some people are more willing to take chances and let the chips fall where they may. Others are more cautious, taking the road to safety.

Social psychologists have found that personality traits tend to remain consistent as a person ages and, if anything, these traits become more marked. Generally speaking, those who took risks when they were younger are more likely to take risks in their older ages. Those who were risk-averse earlier in life, unless they have some cognitive impairment, tend to remain that way into old age. However, older people in the time of COVID-19 face some health vulnerabilities that younger people don’t, which might make them less likely than usual to take a chance. And if they read the news or listen to their adult children, they are well aware of the added risk that age brings to the equation.

Why Retirees Might Feel at Risk

While there are so many unknowns about the virus, one thing seems clear: People over 65, because of their age, are considered at high risk. The pandemic has caused most retirees to come to terms with their age and their status as an at-risk group, even if they are healthy and actively engaged in work or community.

It’s a hard pill to swallow for many boomers. Almost every day, they are singled out by health professionals, government officials, and newscasters. Neighbors are told to watch out for those who are older. While some of the communications and restrictions seem to smack of ageism, the statistics tell the story – there is scientific evidence that the immune system breaks down with age no matter how healthy a person is, especially for those over 70. A professor at the University of Arizona Medical School calls it “twilight immunity.” And there is a double whammy for those who have compromising conditions. The older people become, the more likely they are to develop those conditions, making them particularly susceptible to viruses like COVID-19.

Then, add adult children to the mix. They hear the reports about age-related susceptibility to the virus, too. They find themselves worrying about parents and trying to make sure their parents are safe from infection. Their intentions are good, but they turn into the parent police, making mom and dad feel guilty if they go out of the house. The children, now playing a parent role, either bring groceries to them or tell them to order food online (a problem if parents aren’t as computer literate as the children). The children set up Zoom calls, but no longer come over to visit in person or bring the grandchildren.

And widowed and single people living alone, most likely women, have issues, too. While they may not have children to nag them, they are well aware that if they have symptoms, there is no one living in their home who can take them for tests or to the hospital. They are on their own which is, for many, a frightening thought. Because of the need to self-quarantine, they may be especially worried and lonely with no one to talk to, cook with, or watch movies.

With the facts before them that show that infection and death rates increase with each decade, it’s no wonder that deep down, most retirees have some underlying concerns that those of younger age groups may not. They may watch more television once they are retired and are likely to hear constant updates on the news, outcries about shortages of equipment, and examples of people who became infected and died. They see their financial portfolios shrinking and wonder about their financial future. Their good-intentioned adult children are making them feel especially vulnerable. The older they are – especially those who are 75 and above – the more likely they are to take what they hear about COVID-19 to heart. And if they are risk averse, their feelings and fears are magnified.

What Retirees Should Do: A Judgment Call

While COVID-19 can create an atmosphere of fear, there is evidence that older people actually have a leg up when it comes to their attitudes about life and taking things in stride.

Dr. Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology at Stanford University and founding director of the Stanford Longevity Center, has conducted research on happiness, positing that older people are generally happier and more satisfied than younger people. The theory is that older people have seen it all, they have been through good times and bad times and they can put things into perspective. The belief that “this too will pass” is likely a function of age and experience. A mentally healthy adult can be self-reflective about where they are in life and be content to wait out the quarantine or decide to take some reasonable risks based on their health and how they tolerate taking a chance.

The situation retirees are in brings to mind the risk tolerance assessment given to clients of financial service professionals when determining how aggressive or conservative an investment portfolio should be. A similar assessment for reentering society during COVID-19 might help retirees determine how they are feeling and what they should decide about reentry. The questions to ask might include:

  • What is your age? (The older a person is, the more likely they are at risk)
  • Do you have other health conditions that put you at double jeopardy?
  • Are there others in your household (for example, a spouse) who have health conditions that would put them at risk if you were to take more chances?
  • Do you feel comfortable or uncomfortable about going to stores, being with other people?
  • Do you follow the guidelines that are necessary to minimize the risk?
  • Does sheltering in place provide peace of mind even if you miss out on things you would like to do?
  • Are you willing to accept the consequences if you do develop symptoms and how would that impact the family?

Adult children need to step back and think about the impact of their words and actions on their parents. As people age, they recognize that they are losing some of their functional ability and control over their lives. These feelings of loss can grow over time. Communicating with parents by telling them what to do only exacerbates their anxiety.

Some parents may not need reminders or delivery services, even though they are likely to be deeply appreciative of the good intentions. On the other hand, some may really need assistance, and it is not only helpful but the right thing to do when their children come to the rescue. Some questions adult children might ask themselves:

  • Are you listening to your parents’ views on COVID-19 and what they think is appropriate, or are you imposing your own viewpoint?
  • Are your parents listening to you, and is there a dialogue?
  • What age is the parent (or parents)?
  • What is the parent’s health status and are there underlying conditions like diabetes that make them more vulnerable?
  • Does the parent have cognitive impairment which could influence good decision-making?
  • How are you communicating with your parent?
  • What is it that they need from you, and what can they do for themselves?

For both retirees and adult children, the issue boils down to safety versus independence. If retirees are in good health mentally and physically with no cognitive impairment, they should have the capability of making their own decisions about what is right for them even if they are over the age of 65 and in a more vulnerable group. Wisdom doesn’t automatically come with age, there will always be people who make bad decisions, however, if they practice good public health, obey state and local regulations, and exercise caution as best they can, most will do what’s right.

About the author: Dr. Sandra Timmermann is a nationally-recognized gerontologist with a focus on retirement and business. Sandy was a vice president at MetLife and founder of the MetLife Mature Market Institute, the company’s focal point on retirement research and thought leadership, and has held senior positions with the American Society on Aging, AARP and SeniorNet. She received the 2019 American Society on Aging Award for her leadership in the aging field, and is a 2019 recipient of the Who’s Who Lifetime Achievement Award. A phased retiree herself, she now writes the financial gerontology column for the Journal of Financial Service Professionals, is a senior fellow at the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement, and consults with Equitable on retirement and aging. Email: sandratimmermann1@gmail.com. Website: Timmermannconsulting.com.