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Published: Jun 16, 2016 4 min read

The golden years have lost some of their luster, and health woes are to blame.

Some 37% of retirees report that health problems keep them from living the retirement they expected, according to a Nationwide Retirement Institute survey released Thursday. As part of the study, researchers at Harris Poll queried more than 900 retirees and pre-retirees, and found that health problems took many respondents by surprise: 73% of long-time retirees with health concerns said the problems occurred more than five years sooner than expected.

“People have a very difficult time projecting that they might be less able in the future,” said Thomas West, a partner at SEIA, a wealth management firm in Tysons Corner, Va. If it’s not their own health concerns, then those of a spouse or aging parent can also have a big impact on retirees’ budgets and quality of life, West said.


To be sure, it can be daunting to even consider retirement health care. Fidelity estimates that a 65-year-old couple retiring in 2015 will need $245,000 to cover medical costs in retirement, a number so large that people may just throw up their hands. People in poor health could face an even bigger tab. (And that estimate doesn’t even include the cost of non-skilled nursing homes and other custodial long-term care, which Medicare does not cover.)

Rather than become overwhelmed, though, folks can take small steps to prepare for health care costs in retirement. One place to start is to take a clear-eyed look at current expenses. “What does the balance sheet look like?” West said. “If you don’t know where you’re starting from, it’s hard to make progress toward the destination.”

Understanding Social Security is another important piece of the puzzle, said Dave Giertz, president of sales and distribution for Nationwide. For many retirees, waiting until age 70 to claim Social Security benefits represents a good option, since that will give them the maximum benefit amount. But for those in poor health with a shorter life expectancy, it might make sense to claim earlier, West said.

A separate study this April found a not-so-surprising correlation between self-reported health status and retirement satisfaction. Some 80% of retirees in excellent health reported being “very satisfied” with retirement, versus just 26% of those in poor health, according to the study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, which used data from the University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study.

Those who receive a serious health diagnosis in retirement can recalibrate their expectations for spending their time and money. And those who remain healthy might consider front-loading their bucket list activities in the first years of retirement, provided they have sufficient funds. (A financial adviser can help determine this.) “One of the best parts of my job is giving people permission to spend,” West said.