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The Road to 100

Forget the fountain of youth—our writer goes in search of the secrets of living a happy and financially secure life into your 90s and beyond

By Bill Gifford

NATHAN MYERS HAS BEEN ENJOYING his retirement. He has traveled the world with old friends, read countless books and spent time with his sister, niece and nephew. He lives independently, fixing his own breakfast and lunch every day in his apartment in a well-appointed senior complex outside Boston. Some days he gets in his car to go shopping, and after dinner with friends in the dining hall, he might attend a lecture or go to a movie. Three days a week, he hits the gym for a vigorous workout.

Myers has even had his eye on some of the single ladies in his complex. But then he celebrated, well, let's call it a major birthday in early April. "They made a big fuss about it, so now everybody knows how old I am," he says. "That kind of puts a damper on my plans."

Because here's the thing: Nathan Myers just turned 100 years old. According to 2010 Census data, 53,364 people in the U.S. had hit that milestone, up from just 32,194 in 1980. And the number is set to rise—a report in the British medical journal The Lancet projects that half of all babies born in wealthy nations this year are likely to live into triple digits. In addition, as Myers' story attests, those who get to 100 don't see it as the finish line. "They are out there shoveling snow and even going to work," says Joseph Coughlin, director of MIT's AgeLab.

So what we're talking about here is not just becoming a centenarian, but doing it the right way—in good health, with financial security, actively engaged in the world.

Staying connected to community is one key to successful aging. At 94, Don Farley (pictured above) was married for 64 years, had three careers and remains active in the causes he and his family care about.

I've given a lot of thought lately to the subject of a good old age, and not just because I wrote a book on the science of longevity. I'm approaching 50—halfway there!—and realize I haven't done a lot of planning for what may be my own long life. Will I still be working in 20 years? Will I have enough money to live on? Will I fulfill my dream of owning a sailboat?

Let's face it: Living to 100 sounds great, but the thought of paying for 100 years can be scary. My grandfather amassed a portfolio healthy enough to provide his widow, my grandmother, with a comfortable life. She's now 98 years old and living in Florida—hooray for good genes. But my grandfather was a corporate executive, while I'm a freelance writer with a variable income.

Indeed, a 2016 study by the Stanford Center on Longevity—Sightlines: Seeing Our Way to Living Long, Living Well in 21st Century America—found that a third of Americans aged 55 to 64 have no retirement account at all, and that percentage has been rising. Among younger generations, the picture is even more problematic. Millennials in the 25-to-34 age bracket have higher levels of debt and lower rates of savings than older generations did at their age.

This apparent reluctance to take the long view of our finances may be only natural, believes Laura Carstensen, professor and director of the Stanford Center on Longevity and lead author of the study. She notes that our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived only to about age 25. "Nature abhors a 401(k)," she quips. "There's nothing in our evolutionary history that prepared our brains to think 30 to 40 years out. So we need to build a culture that helps us do that."

Secrets of Aging Well
That's all the more reason we can and should learn from the success stories: people such as Nathan Myers—and Don Farley. Farley hasn't quite reached 100 yet, but he's a healthy 94.


"Nature abhors a 401(k). Nothing has prepared our brains to think 30 to 40 years out. So we need to build a culture that helps us do that."
— Dr. Laura Carstensen, Stanford University

The length of his life so far is more than matched by a richness of experience. A retired Congregational minister and high school teacher, Farley has been sustained by a lifelong faith, a loving marriage of 64 years (his wife, Martha, passed away last year), a passion for social causes and a devotion to the arts that he shared with Martha. An accomplished cellist, he played actively until a couple of years ago, and he still attends chamber music concerts at Northwestern University, a few blocks from his Evanston, Illinois, retirement community.

For both Myers and Farley, preparing for the financial aspects of long life has involved working with Merrill Lynch financial advisors, in relationships themselves notable for their longevity. Farley has worked with Steven Porter for going on 20 years, and Myers' connection to his advisor, William McConnell, extends all the way back to 1979. "We're good friends," Myers says. "Bill is like part of the family."

Myers' father was a factory worker who struggled to make a living, and Nathan helped pay his own way to attend Harvard College. After graduating in the late 1930s, he worked at various jobs for the U.S. government. While earning relatively modest salaries, he saved diligently and invested carefully. "Quite possibly because of his early years during the Depression, Nathan has been a very sensible investor," says McConnell. "He's set up parameters for the type of investing that he wants to do and stuck with them." His investment philosophy—which has remained steadfast ever since he started his relationship with Merrill Lynch in 1940, 76 years ago—has three pillars: Start investing as early as possible, even if the amounts are small; invest for the long term, not a quick profit; and trust the American economy.

Farley, meanwhile, was a conservatory student at Oberlin College in Ohio before being drafted into the Army and serving in the South Pacific through the end of the war in 1945. Returning to school, he met Martha, and after graduating they both served as missionaries—Don in China and Martha in India. They married in 1951, started a family and began careers centered on faith, education and their commitment to causes including civil rights, women's rights and opposition to war. "She had a strong sense of justice and of obligation to the larger community," Don says.

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Though they lived modestly, an inheritance from Martha's family enabled them to expand their lifelong passion for charitable causes. That desire, combined with a need to lessen capital gains taxes on the inheritance, led to the creation of two charitable trusts and eventually a private family foundation as well. "The trusts were tools to diversify, bring in some steady income and help them meet their philanthropic goals and desires," Porter says.

"We have 20 or more causes that we support," says Don Farley, who remains actively engaged. "That includes arts, community services in Evanston and church efforts to relieve suffering, among others."

Myers' prudent habits helped him accumulate enough resources to retire at age 55—and to live comfortably ever since. Similarly, Don Farley left his last job in 1984 and is now in his fourth decade of retirement. While most Americans may not be living that long after leaving work, things are trending that way. "Today, for the first time, people can expect to live as long as 30 years beyond what had been traditional retirement age," says Nora Super, chief of programs and services for the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, who served as executive director of the 2015 White House Conference on Aging.

Panelists from "Are You Ready to Live to 100? Ways to Help You Get (Financially) Fit" share lessons learned from their elders.

Transcript of Video

The Cost of a Long Retirement
Where are all those people going to find the income to pay their way during their post-career years? More specifically, where would I? Inspired by the stories of Don Farley and Nathan Myers, I talked to Bill Hunter, director of Retirement Solutions and Strategy at Merrill Lynch.

He outlined the financial factors that apply to those who, like me, are looking to get to 100. Started investing early? A good thing. Own your own home and keep expenses low? Also good. (I drive a reliable car with 110,000 miles on it, and also bought my first stocks and mutual funds in my mid-twenties—rather like Myers.) "I encourage millennials to start putting away money early and often, because one of the great advantages they have on their side is time," Hunter says.

But he pointed out that planning for a long retirement also involves understanding your goals for retirement—as well as how much risk you're comfortable with, and what your cash flow needs are—and then putting your finances to work toward those goals.

Hunter encourages young people aspiring to 100 to answer three questions: What's my time horizon? What are my priorities? And last, and separate from the other two, what are my goals? I'd already decided that I'd like to live as long as my grandmother—but, like three-quarters of Americans, only if it also means remaining in good health. "People need to factor in health-care costs when they're thinking about their later years," he says.

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Of his 100th birthday, Nathan Myers (above) says, "They made a big fuss about it, so now everybody knows how old I am."

When I posed the question of retirement goals to myself, I envisioned a fulfilling, adventurous life in retirement, surrounded by friends and family, with desires ranging from the basic (having enough to live on comfortably) to the generous (helping put my nieces through college) and the fanciful (that sailboat).

The first step in creating a viable approach for the decades ahead, Hunter says, is to take stock of all your assets. From there, together with your financial advisor, you can look for the kinds of investments best suited to your specific goals—for instance, you'll probably want potentially less risky investments for immediate needs, especially if there's a chance you'll require ready access to cash. For a more aspirational goal, like opening education accounts to help my nieces, who are still in elementary school, it can make sense to take on moderate risk. And the nice-to-haves, like my sailboat, might require taking on an added level of risk—and being comfortable with the idea that it could be a hit or a miss.

But the key issue, Hunter stressed, is how long retirement income needs to last. "People generally underestimate how long they'll live," he says.

That reality means there are other factors to think about, Hunter says. One is the question of when to begin receiving Social Security benefits—and to receive the highest benefit amount possible, people might consider waiting until the age of 70 to collect. "Most people don't know they're taking a permanent discount by collecting as soon as they qualify," he says. (That, of course, is based on the assumption that they'll be enjoying long lives.)

MORE INSIGHTS

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For more on the Farleys, read “The Family That Gives Together” next.

Read More

Deciding on a "drawdown" strategy for savings would be another crucial matter. Rather than using a standard rule of thumb, such as withdrawing no more than 4% of my assets each year, he suggests a customized approach. "A flat percentage for annual withdrawal can't account for several variables—including how long you may live, the rising cost of health care, whether you hope to leave a bequest, and other factors," he told me.

There were a couple of other things I learned from Hunter. First, while it's important to make sure that you have a steady stream of income to cover the essentials, it's also important to continue to invest for potential growth. Finally, I determined that I'll need to stay flexible. "Retirement may be more dynamic and fluid than any other time in your life," Hunter says. "You'll have to be prepared to make choices when life events—both welcome and unwelcome—occur."

Health Is a Form of Wealth
Financial security is a critical factor in a long and successful life—but hardly the only one. Experts say that staying healthy may matter as much, if not more, and this was another focus of Stanford's Sightlines study. How long you live could have a lot to do with your genetics. Don Farley's father lived to 88, which makes his own longevity unsurprising. But Nathan Myers' father died in his late sixties. Nathan decided to stack the odds in his favor by making physical activity a part of his daily life—bicycling, hiking, ice skating.

Such behavior can help in other ways. "One thing I learned from working with dozens of experts about aging is the value of staying active," says Super. "It's the best thing you can do, not only for physical health, but also brain health."

In this regard, Sightlines offers some heartening news for younger Americans—especially those between 25 and 44, who are more active now than the same age group was a decade ago. Yet at the same time, we're also spending more time sitting. "Research shows that sitting is an independent risk factor," says Carstensen. "You could go out for a 30-minute run, and then if you sit at your desk for long periods, that has negative health effects—and it's not remedied by your run."

We're improving on other health risk factors as well. Smoking rates are down, and thanks to the Affordable Care Act, many more of today's Americans have health insurance. At the same time, rates of obesity and diabetes remain high.

Could there be an anti-aging pill in your future? Watch our panel discuss the latest healthcare breakthroughs.

Transcript of Video

The Friends & Family Factor
Research has shown that social engagement helps foster mental and cognitive health, as well as a sense of purpose, which in turn helps boost longevity. People who are more socially connected also tend to be healthier, with less risk of heart disease or even the common cold. According to Sightlines, however, boomers are less connected than 55- to 64-year-olds of the previous generation.

Devotion to their families, along with staying active and engaged, have helped both Farley and Myers remain vital through the decades since they left their last formal jobs. Which leads to what Carstensen considers an often overlooked element of a successful retirement: not retiring from life when you retire from regular work. Or, as MIT's Coughlin puts it, "Part of living to 100 is really thinking and consciously developing a rich repertoire of things that excite and delight us."

Hold on to Your Dreams
So that's the challenge: finding the crucial balance between careful, conscientious planning and saving, on the one hand, while holding on to our romantic dreams of what life, at its best, can be. That equation, for you, may depend on where you are in your personal journey. If you're in your 20s, say, embracing the present while staying fit and engaged may seem much easier than saving for a distant financial future. As you get older, those factors and your own formula for longevity are likely to shift—and then to shift again, and again.

I'm optimistic. I hope I live to 100, and I'm going to do everything I can to ensure that when I get there, I have my health, my friends and the financial means to make the most of our time together. I hope you do, too, and when you arrive, look me up. I'd love to give you a ride on my sailboat.

Bill Gifford is the author of the bestseller Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (or Die Trying), a personal investigation of the science of aging.

3 Questions to Ask Your Advisor

  1. Which sources of retirement income could help me meet my essential goals?
  2. What "drawdown" strategies could help make my savings last through a long retirement?
  3. What are the trade-offs of buying long-term-care insurance at my age?

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