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Getting In the Way of Our Own Old-Age Well-Being

Why do many seniors resist moving into even the best retirement communities?

It is a painful irony that while many senior citizens will spend their last years without decent housing or adequate medical care, those who can afford both are often reluctant to take advantage of what their good fortune could provide them. You can see this in the significant segment of the US population that is currently trying to convince their elderly parents to move into assisted living communities—and having a hard time doing so. To the children, it can seem like a no-brainer: Why not live comfortably and safely in what is essentially a well-appointed college dormitory for the elderly rather than fret about the upkeep of an increasingly demanding and lonely household? But two powerful psychological processes often stand in the way.

The parents frequently come away from visits to these establishments agreeing that “yes, that’s a lovely place” but “I would really miss my garden” or “yes, I’d like to move there someday, but we’re not at that stage yet.” The first understandable reaction reflects the influence of “loss aversion,” or the fact that what one gives up seems so much more prominent and important than what one gains. Giving up the garden (or the neighbors or the local grocer or the proximity to the kids) seems too high a price to pay even for prepared meals, comfortable accommodations, and skilled medical personnel available 24/7. But once they’re actually in these communities, enjoying the prepared food, accommodations, and medical attention, everything flips and there is no way they would give up those advantages for the once-cherished garden, neighbors, or grocer.

The second reaction stems from a psychological phenomenon that is equally widespread—the “above average effect.” That is, people are not strangers to hubris. When asked to rate how they compare with their peers on their leadership qualities, their ability to get along with others, and yes, their driving skill, the overwhelming majority of respondents rate themselves as notably above average. And lest you think it is only other people who are prone to this bias, think about your usual reaction when you see a picture of yourself. “Do I really look like that?” Yes. That’s you. The same thing plays out when your elderly parents visit a retirement community and insist they aren’t as frail as the residents that, to you, look like their age-mates in every respect.

How to convince your aging parents to make their lives easier and more enjoyable by moving into one of these facilities? Note that it is very rare to hear about people regretting their decision to move in; indeed, the typical reaction is, “I should have done this years ago.” (Remember: we’re talking about people who can afford to move into relatively expensive, well-staffed, and well-appointed facilities. Moving to the “institutional” types of “nursing homes” that remind everyone of overcrowded hospitals is another matter.) To overcome loss aversion, going beyond the usual short-visit-with-a-meal and arranging for an extended stay (in those places that allow it) can work wonders by making it clear just how little the old garden will be missed. And the inertia produced by the above-average effect can be overcome by enlisting your parents’ peers who have already made the move. It’s much easier for them to see that they are as old as their friends than to see they are as old as a group of same-age strangers.

Understanding the psychological barriers to desired change is a big step to making the change happen.

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