The Economics of Aging


Last week, Rosellen and I bought a couch. Our daughter and son-in-law have been after us for years to replace the disreputable piece in our TV room with visible staples holding the fabric together and an unsleepable pullout bed that is a chiropractor’s dream. When we sent Elana a picture of our purchase, she commented that it looked surprisingly like the old couch, minus the staples, which tells you something about our adventurousness.

The real issue here, though, is why are people approaching their 84th birthdays buying a couch, a substantial and pricey one at that. You can buy a cheesy item from online companies that invade your email space on a daily basis for prices in the hundreds, or items like ours that run well into the thousands. The budget items have a limited life span but, for that matter, so do we. How many years will we have to enjoy our purchase? In fact, how many years are we likely to have left in our wonderful apartment before circumstances force us to trade down to a two-roomer in a retirement or assisted living community?

The issue of how to make purchasing decisions of all kinds at this late stage of life is one I confront with increasing frequency. There’s a kind of cinnamon-flavored toothpaste that I can only buy online, and it has to be bought in bulk, like four tubes at a time. A tube of toothpaste lasts a surprisingly long time for frugal folks like us who are determined to squeeze every drop of that red gelatinous mass from a tired tube. Will I be around to run through the whole batch, or will what remains be yet another burden to whoever has the unfortunate task of unloading the rest of our accumulated belongings?

There’s a similar calculus in play when we subscribe to the many magazines and publications we read and the many organizations who require membership dues. There’s almost always a discount for multi-year payments, but we persist in going year by year. Doing otherwise is tempting the fates. In this instance our decisions are determined as much by superstition as by the actuarial tables. We’re more prudent on the small items than on the ones like couches. Not much sense there.

There are health decisions that also play out against this same backdrop of aging. I’ve had a drooping eyelid for more than 30 years. Just woke up with it one morning and after dozens of tests that ruled out the serious neurological causes, its cause remains a mystery. Recently, it has dropped another couple of millimeters, very slightly invading my field of vision. I’m having a surgical procedure in June to lift the lid, which will benefit my sight as well as my physical appearance. Does it really matter at this point in my life? A plastic surgeon friend offered to take care of the offending lid decades ago, but I declined. It felt like a concession to vanity, which just doesn’t match who I am.

The only professional who’s ever allowed this factor of age to enter into the equation of decisions is my dentist of long standing. Whenever issues like teeth whitening or implanting replacements for extracted teeth came up, he would refer to his aging father with whom he discussed similar procedures, usually advising him that the costly work didn’t make sense at this point, though it might have a decade or two earlier when there were still many more miles to run up on the odometer.

One more set of examples. There’s a lot of what I would classify as deferred maintenance on the apartment we’ve lived in for 27 years. The windows leak a painful amount of cold air during the windy Chicago winters, and despite its breezy 16th floor location, there are some unbearably warm days every summer. Do we replace the windows? Air condition the entire apartment? Buy more and bigger air conditioning units? These are all decisions we’re confronting now, albeit belatedly.

The apartment improvements raise the same issues as the new staple-free couch. Just how long are we going to be around to enjoy these costly upgrades? Does this kind of cost benefit analysis create a mindset that actually brings the endgame that much closer? After all, there’s a more optimistic position we could adopt that points to increasing life spans. Neither of us is suffering from any life-threatening conditions, so there could be another decade of rewards to be reaped from these costly decisions, although we’re well aware that this picture could change in a heartbeat.

For now, we’re pursuing what could be considered the bolder, more optimistic options and moving ahead on most of the fronts I’ve described. We tell our children that we’re spending down some of their inheritance in the process, but they remain steadfast in encouraging us to think first about our own comfort and convenience. It’s the same position they maintain when we tell them about costly travel plans that will also put a dent in our assets. So, the couch is on order, we await the bid on the windows and we’re checking the catalogs for air conditioners. Full speed ahead. 

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Marv Hoffman
By Marv Hoffman

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