We all make countless decisions every day. Some are mundane, like what to have for breakfast. Others are much more consequential, like choosing a career, picking a life partner, or getting that tattoo. At the heart of every decision we make, there is a thought process that takes into account risks and rewards, past experiences, biases, and even our gut instincts. For this reason, some choices are based more heavily on our feelings and emotions, while others are predominantly based on logic — the rational. This dichotomy between the emotional and the rational can be particularly apparent during the senior living decision process.
The first choice of a senior living decision
Making a choice about where you want to live during your retirement years definitely falls into the category of consequential decisions. And there is actually a series of decisions that go along with this. It is reminiscent of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books for children, which you might recall.
The first thing that people typically must decide is if they want to remain in their current home as they grow older or if they are open to moving.
For those who want to remain in their current home…
- Are any modifications to the home needed in order to live there safely as they age, particularly if their mobility declines? For example, is the home accessible without climbing stairs? And is there a bedroom and bathroom on the first floor if it is a multi-story home?
- Do they have a nearby support system so they can continue to socialize with loved ones and remain active and engaged in life, including if they are no longer able to drive themselves?
- Do they have access to the care services that may be needed if they have a health issue in the future — things like high-quality medical care, rehabilitative services, caregiving services (either paid or unpaid), etc.?
As you can see, a common theme with these points about potentially remaining in your current home is the word “if.” There are numerous “what ifs” that should be factored in with this particular senior living option. But make no mistake: There are also a lot of choices that must be made if you are considering relocating.
For those who are open to moving during their retirement years…
- What geographic location do you want to live in? For instance, are you hoping for a warmer climate where shoveling snow can be a thing of the past? Are you drawn to the mountains, the beach, the desert?
- Do you want to live closer to loved ones — perhaps adult children or grandchildren?
- Do you want to live in a metropolitan area, a suburb, or somewhere more remote?
- What type of community do you want to live in? Do you want to reside in a typical neighborhood, or maybe you are drawn to an age-restricted 55-plus community?
- What type of home do you want to live in: a traditional home (where you are responsible for all interior and exterior upkeep) or maybe a condo/apartment that includes all exterior maintenance, such as in most 55-plus communities?
- How will you acclimate to living in a new town such as learning your way around, making new friends, finding new healthcare providers, etc.?
- Are you interested in a community that includes amenities for residents like a pool/clubhouse, dining, and/or a golf course – common in many 55-plus communities?
- Do you want a community that includes access to care services — such as assisted living, memory care, and even skilled nursing care — should you ever need them, such as in a continuing care retirement community (CCRC or life plan community)?
This is far from a comprehensive list of the choices that must be made around a senior living decision, but it gives you an idea of some of the factors that are going into the thought process.
A typical decision-making framework
There are countless psychology and sociology studies that have been done on how we make decisions. I recently read an essay by a data analyst that distilled down all that research into human decision-making, summarizing that a decision process typically includes four steps.
- Stating values: What really matters to you? Examples of responses to this might be family, security, health, and/or happiness.
- Predicting outcomes: As the essay author notes, decisions are ultimately predictions about the future. This step factors in facts/probability statistics blended with our own imagination of possible “what if” scenarios.
- Uncovering bias: We all have emotional and cognitive biases — some we can identify and others that we may not even realize. This step in making a decision should in theory factor in the false reality of biases and hopefully try to see the decision through clearer eyes. You can learn more about emotional-cognitive biases (and how to overcome them) here.
- Taking action: In this step, you take all of the information you gathered in steps 1 through 3, and you make your choice. However, bear in mind that this entire process also can be a trial-adjust loop where you come to a decision, try it out, and course-correct if the outcome isn’t what you’d envisioned.
The emotional vs. the rational
As a person makes a senior living decision, they likely are going through each of these four steps, whether consciously or unconsciously. But there is another key factor that plays into our choices, and perhaps especially a decision about where to live during retirement. It’s the decision-making influence of the emotional mind versus the rational one.
In the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath, they explore this concept using the anecdote of an elephant, which represents the emotional side of the brain, and the rider, which is the rational side.
The elephant is driven by instinct — seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. If there is not a clear path for it, it will not budge and will stand in your way of making a change. The rider, on the other hand, is analytical, sometimes to a fault such as when we overthink a choice.
One side of the brain needs the other to create balance, but the rational brain often creates a barrier for the emotional brain to embrace change, and vice versa. Put another way, change is only possible when the rider and the elephant work together.
Finding a path forward
Let’s consider how this elephant and rider analogy relates to making a choice about your retirement living. An emotion-driven senior living decision might look like:
- Remaining in your home just because you have fond memories associated with it, even if it is not a conducive floorplan or location for your retirement years.
- Moving into a new home or town that you fall in love with, but can’t afford in the long-term or that lacks the support and care resources you might need should your health decline.
- Moving to the same town where adult children/grandchildren live, even if it isn’t a location you truly want to live in. Perhaps it has an undesirable climate or lacks sufficient care services. And then there’s the possibility that the person/people you moved there to be close to might themselves move away.
- Making a senior living decision — either to remain in your home or to move — soon after a partner’s death.
By comparison, the overly rational side of the brain might put someone into “analysis paralysis” when it comes to making a senior living decision. A person might get too caught up in all of the “what ifs,” resulting in the inability to make a final decision. What if I run out of money, or need long-term care, or don’t like the new 55-plus community I choose? The “what if” list can go on and on.
As the Heaths explain in Switch, to make a change or a decision, you have to appeal to both the emotional and the rational brain in order to find a path forward. “The Rider provides the planning and direction, and the Elephant provides the energy.”
Taking steps down the path to a senior living decision
A well-thought-out senior living decision is planned in advance, based on a realistic analysis of your personal finances, planning for age-related what ifs, and factoring in your personal values — such as wanting to be close to family or not wanting to be a burden to loved ones.
Once you have your emotional and rational brain working in concert, you are ready to take action. And remember, while the first step may be the most challenging, it’s all about beginning the senior living decision process. Maybe that looks like researching 55 plus communities. Or reaching out to a contractor to find out the cost of adding a bathroom to the ground floor of your home. Or setting up a tour of a continuing care retirement community.
As the Heaths note in Switch, “Big changes can start with very small steps. Small changes tend to snowball. The first thing to do is recognize and celebrate that first step.” What is the first small step you can make toward your senior living decision?
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