Wide-eyed and open to adventure, Christine L’Orange landed in the old airport in Kona. It was 1970 and the 22-year-old California transplant was living in the moment.
L’Orange soon found herself residing in a rural tin-roofed shack without windows on the Big Island. She paid a rent of just $16 per month, but wasn’t thinking much about money, or her future. Instead, she would wake up many mornings and peer out from the deck — awestruck — at lush tropical plants, the coastline and the occasional luminous rainbow. “I was,” she recalls, “in heaven.”
Forty-five years later, Hawaii has changed — transformed by development, some wealthy transplants, an aging population and prices that have become America’s most expensive.
L’Orange’s life has evolved, too. Her old rental shack is a distant, if romantic, memory. She owns a home in Holualoa that is surrounded by an acre of lush flora. What began as improvised decorative plant work has evolved into a thriving orchid design business; she crafts temporary plant installations for the homes of wealthy part-time Big Island residents. “My kids tell me I run my business like I’m selling papayas on the side of the road,” she says with a laugh. “It just happened.”
The unexpected success, and how busy it has kept her, has come at a price; it seems to have sped up time. She never really got around to contemplating the next stage of her life.
“I didn’t think about retiring. I feel like I’m in really good shape and I run,” the youthful looking L’Orange says. “If I don’t look in the mirror, I’m 20.”
But, she adds, “There’s this sense that there’s this old lady coming. It is like: When did this happen?”
L’Orange is one of a fast-growing number of Americans who have put off retirement. Like many others, she just assumed she would continue with her profession until the day she died. “I always said I was going to work until I fell over in the yard and become compost.”
“I feel like I’m in really good shape and I run. If I don’t look in the mirror, I’m 20.” — Christine L’Orange, 67
In many ways, she embodies the spirit of a substantial segment of the “baby boomer” generation — a huge cluster of Americans born between the end of World War II and 1964. Broadly speaking, this group — between the ages of 50 and 69 — are healthier than previous generations, forecast to live longer and primed to remain productive despite their advancing years.
This has broad implications — particularly for Hawaii. The population in the islands has aged rapidly in the 45 years since L’Orange touched down in Kona. In 1980 — one decade after her arrival — just 8.0 percent of Hawaii’s population consisted of seniors, according to census data. By 2010, that percentage jumped to 14.5 percent. It is forecast to surge to 23.6 percent over the next quarter century, according to a 2040 forecast from the state’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
Given that people in Hawaii live, on average, nearly three years longer than their contemporaries on the mainland, these demographic changes could send political, social, infrastructural and financial shockwaves through the islands.
The greatest impact may come when baby boomers reach their 80s — the age when people typically require much more late-in-life support. But boomers are already redefining the very definition of retirement, even as they stop working — or don’t.
The shift toward the golden years long ago moved on from the “Mad Men”-era’s gold-watch farewells that guided long-timers toward a life of leisure starting at age 65.
These days, studies show, people are either retiring earlier — often due to health-related challenges or because they are forced out of their jobs — or later, as they seek to gradually disengage or just hold on as long as they can.
That doesn’t mean that expectations are in sync with what really happens.
The 2015 Retirement Confidence Survey, based on 2,004 interviews, asked people when they expect to retire. Just 25 percent said they plan to stop working before they reach the historic U.S. retirement age, but 65 percent of retirees surveyed stopped earlier than that — often much earlier.
Twenty-one percent of respondents said they would finish working right at 65, although just 9 percent of current retirees surveyed managed to do that.
Thirty-six percent of workers said they intend to retire in their late 60s, 70s or even later, but just 14 percent of retirees lasted that long. And then there are the 10 percent of people interviewed who say they will never retire, meaning they will work until they die.
The report that accompanies the survey noted the “considerable gap” between workers’ expectations and people’s actual age of retirement.
There are many reasons why people are trying to hold off on retirement. Some of them are related to fear, finances or both. The most common retirement-related concern — for 44 percent of people — involves the risk of burning through their life savings before the end of their life.
Signs of the pressures that keep people working are also embedded in the 26 percent of workers who hope to stay on the job until they are at least 70. That would mark a great change given that just 6 percent of those surveyed in the 70-and-up age range continue to work.
Workers who do not feel financially secure try to push their retirement back, the survey analysis notes. Their lack of confidence is based on an inability to save enough, which is mostly attributable to the broad cost of living.
One in three workers also believes — and most likely, correctly — that living standards will decline when he or she stops working.
The disconnect could also be attributable to massive cultural, social and economic changes as boomers cross the traditional retirement-age threshold.
Older Americans are healthier than they used to be and are forecast to have more years as seniors ahead of them than previous generations, noted Andy Mason, a professor of economics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
At the same time, their finances have been destabilized. Fewer people can count on pensions to cover all — or in many cases any — of their retirement costs, due to the evolving U.S. employment markets. And then there is the enduring impact of the Great Recession that kicked in seven years ago, cutting into many boomers’ investments in the years before they reached retirement, noted Mason, who studies the economics of aging. To compensate, many people are trying to extend their working life to recoup lost savings.
And many baby boomers are simply discovering as they age that retirement will be more expensive than expected, which is why some of them they have no intention of retiring.
Some people do die on the job, but far more often the people who resist riding off into the professional sunset are forced out of the work force. The main culprits: Health problems, disabilities, the need to care for ailing family members and employers who just don’t want them anymore.
Such forces help to explain the disconnect between what people hope for and what actually happens. The survey found that just 9 percent of workers wanted to retire by the age of 60, but 36 percent of them were done by then.
In many ways, Hawaii isn’t the real world retirement draw that it once was. On Bankrate.com’s 2015 list of the best states to retire in, the islands placed a lowly 44th — sandwiched between Kentucky and New Jersey. Ouch.
Bankrate’s data included some good news. Hawaii topped the list for “community well-being,” but the islands were dragged down by an array of other factors, especially being the most expensive state.
The study’s accompanying analysis went so far as to suggest what some Hawaii residents are discovering: People in states with high rents and mortgages might do so much better financially if they moved.
For middle class locals who want to remain in Hawaii, given the state’s costs, it is understandable that residents feel they need to work longer, but there are some problems with people’s assumptions that they can.
For one, in a service-based economy, employers often turn toward young, cheap workers — as visitors to Waikiki will note.
Many other types of employment in the state are not ideal for older workers, as economist Paul Brewbaker, who served as an appointee on the Hawaii Long-term Care Commission, pointed out. He argues that one solution is to enable baby boomers to work later in life than has been conventional because they are healthier and will live longer, and he says technological advances in many workplaces make it feasible like never before. The problem, he said, is that “our anachronistic labor market institutions” preclude this through mandatory retirement ages that are set too low given how long people are living.
“It is a luxury to save money for your own retirement.” — Bruce Bottorff, the director of communications at AARP Hawaii
Brewbaker’s emphasis on changing the rules, and work cultures, is driven largely by economics. A lot of money, or some deft planning, will likely be necessary to pay for Hawaii’s elderly boom.
Multimillionaire families might be able to fork out $135,050 to cover the median yearly cost of a slot in a nursing-care home in 2014, according to numbers provided by AARP Hawaii, but what about the rest of us?
Even the price of in-home health aide service was $57,772 last year, and that is in addition to rent or possible mortgage payments for elderly people who live independently.
Bruce Bottorff, the director of communications at AARP Hawaii, said that middle class residents can rarely, if ever, afford such expenses unless they have long-term care insurance to defer the cost. Hawaii leads the nation in the percentage of people 40 and older who are paying for such insurance, but it still represents just 12 percent of residents.
The result, Bottorff noted, is that middle-class seniors rely on unpaid care, which usually means that family or friends look after them when they get too frail.
This can place intense time and financial pressure on such people’s adult children — many of who are already scrapping to deal with Hawaii’s high cost of living, which can include bringing up their own children. This “cycle of care burden,” Bottorff said, risks burning caregivers out. In terms of such families’ finances, he added, “It is a luxury to save money for your own retirement.”
Hawaii’s evolving demographics are a problem here, as well. The baby boomers had relatively few children so the generation that followed them is much smaller. There is a smaller population of middle-aged people who are likely to be in a position to care for their aging relatives in their time of most frequent need.
“We could see adult children in their 70s caring for parents in their 90s,” said Bottorff.
It is conceivable that rising aging costs and a lack of preparation could drive many baby boomers from the islands in a middle-class retiree exodus, whether to the less expensive mainland where savings almost invariably go further, or even to discount paradises abroad.
If that happens, no one might realize it for a while. Employees at the state research agency DBEDT and others associated with the University of Hawaii Center on Aging said they are unaware of information on the number of retirees who depart the state or why they go.
“We are headed toward a time where — and this is particularly true in Hawaii — there isn’t enough savings cushion.” — Bruce Bottorff, of AARP Hawaii
Sarah Yuan, an associate specialist at UH’s Center for the Family who focuses on the elderly population, also noted a broader shortage of data concerning seniors’ preparations for retirement. “With Hawaii, it is so small, many national surveys don’t include us. So we are missing that information.”
Bottorff, at AARP Hawaii, said numerous former volunteers with the organization have moved to the mainland, partly due to the cost of living.
He also warned that the fast-growing senior population in the islands is creating an array of complex challenges. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that when the full costs of health care are factored into the cost equation for Hawaii seniors, it doubled the number of residents who live in poverty, Bottorff said.
More than one in four Hawaii residents above the age of 65 rely on Social Security as their sole source of income, according to AARP Hawaii.
The median combined retirement and social security income for retirees between 2008 and 2012 was just $14,700, according to a just-released tabulation by the Center on the Family.
Such people are generally not in the middle class, but they are part of what may become an “elderly crisis,” Bottorff said.
That said, many of them do have resources to tap into. There is Medicaid — the health insurance of last resort for people when they are destitute late in life — and it can pay for a nursing home. For middle class people to access it, they basically have to impoverish themselves, Bottorff noted.
“I always had this feeling that I never had to think about it. I want a plan.” — Christine L’Orange
A second default option, for some, involves tapping into home equity, which is much more palatable to much of the middle class. People who own a home with significant equity can gravitate toward reverse mortgages to tap into some of their stored wealth, and when they — and perhaps their spouse — die, a portion of the value of the house goes back to the bank.
The downside is that this results in less, or perhaps even no, inheritance for their descendants. “We are headed toward a time where — and this is particularly true in Hawaii —there isn’t enough savings cushion,” Bottorff said.
The good news is that there is a decade before the baby boomers begin to reach their 80s when they are likely to need the most support. State and federal policymakers, as well as businesses, are looking for solutions to the challenges ahead. Hopefully the scale of the need will focus their efforts.
Individuals and their families can, in many cases, do a better job of assessing how much money they will need in retirement and what other sorts of resources are available to them.
For people like L’Orange, who have resources of their own, the first step involves gaining some perspective on the passage of time.
She began to see things differently after reading an article about a 60-something Oahu local who bailed on the islands to spend his golden years in Panama because it reminded him of the Hawaii of his youth, while also being affordable.
L’Orange is now asking herself practical questions: When should I retire? How much money do I need to be financially secure? Will I need long-term care, and what might it cost? In search of answers, L’Orange is seeking advice from a financially savvy acquaintance, and may seek out a formal retirement planner.
The Big Island resident knows she is far better off than most people in the islands — she has land she can leverage in a variety of ways, a business she might be able to sell, and three grown children in her life.
L’Orange now says she hopes to step away from her work in three years, by the time she turns 70. She has come to understand that ignoring retirement is not a strategy for the future.
“I always had this feeling that I never had to think about it,” she says.
Now, she adds, “I want a plan.”
Do you have a story about the human impact of the cost of living in the islands, whether about you or someone you know? If so, click on the red button with the pencil and share it through Connections, or drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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