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Retirement lifestyle

November 02, 2015

Healthcare shockers that threaten your retirement

Nothing can derail retirement plans faster than unexpected health issues. Here are four — and what you can do to avoid them.

1. Falls

Anyone can fall down, but as people age, the risks rise. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), 20 to 30% of seniors fall each year. In this age group, falls are the top cause of injury-related hospitalizations. The resulting damage, from broken hips to head injuries, along with the fear of falling again, can limit mobility, independence and activity. How can you stay on your feet?

  • Get active. Exercise and other physical activity can reduce muscle loss associated with aging, and help with flexibility and balance. PHAC reports that only 11% of the 60-to-79 age group meets Canada's physical activity guidelines.
  • Review your medication. Some prescriptions (e.g., for anxiety or sleeplessness) can boost your odds of falling. Talk to a doctor or pharmacist to assess your drugs.
  • Eat right. Protein, vitamin D and calcium can help maintain muscle and bone strength. Poor nutrition and dehydration can slow your reaction time if you do take a tumble.
  • Audit your home. Check for hazards (e.g., loose rugs, clutter, hard-to-reach household items), and install safety aids such as non-slip surfaces or grab bars in the shower or tub.

For more fall prevention tips, check out You CAN Prevent Falls! from PHAC, and Finding Balance, from the Alberta Centre for Injury Control and Research.

2. A need for personal care assistance

Nobody knows if injury or illness will throw a wrench into retirement, or perhaps thrust one spouse into the role of caregiver. Even if you can’t anticipate the specifics, consider scenarios, says Susan Eng of CARP (the Canadian Association of Retired Persons), an organization that advocates for a new vision of aging.

For instance, have you thought about (and can you afford) a retirement residence if something were to happen to prevent you from remaining in your home? Do your loved ones know your care wishes? Can your savings or personal health insurance cover emergencies?

With uncertainty about the future, what can retirees do? Seize the day, says Nanaimo, B.C.-based Barry LaValley, author of So You Think You Are Ready to Retire? If you or your spouse were to run into an unexpected health problem, you wouldn’t want regrets or resentment over missed opportunities, says LaValley: “Do as much as you can as quickly as you can -- never put things off.”

3. Illness or injury when travelling

Travel tops many retirement plans. Even if you’ve set aside enough money for the actual adventures, what happens if you face a health issue while outside of Canada, or even in another province (as provincial government health insurance coverage varies across the country)? “It’s a huge challenge,” says Eng.

The cost of travel insurance depends on factors such as your age, medical history and length of stay. And the price-tag for even the most comprehensive coverage for the longest period available is nothing compared to the massive health care bills that can accumulate if you don’t buy coverage. “If you have a major illness, it could cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says LaValley, a retirement educator. “Traveling without insurance is crazy. You can ruin yourself financially.”

4. Post-career mental health issues

For a rewarding retirement, good mental health is just as important as physical health, reminds Dr. Michael Gordon, a leading geriatric specialist and professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, and the medical program director of palliative care at Toronto’s Baycrest Health Sciences.

Upon leaving work, he says, people often shed some sense of purpose and personal networks. Ask yourself: Do you have other keen interests to pursue? Have you made detailed plans? Do they include a social component? If any of the answers are no, there’s a risk of depression or isolation, says Dr. Gordon.

“People who don’t have emotional well-being can also end up with physical problems, maybe because they change eating habits, abuse alcohol or become sedentary,” says Dr. Gordon. “If you have no meaning, then life becomes just a succession of endless days.”

That meaning doesn’t have to be monumental, he says. But consider retirement pursuits that can serve your overall health. If you’re passionate about a hobby or activity, are physically and mentally active and are supported by a social circle, “that checks off all the buttons,” says Dr. Gordon.

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