By Penelope Wang
November 6, 2012

You think you’re on top of this retirement-planning thing. You’ve maxed out your 401(k) matches and loaded up your IRA.

Joseph Coughlin says you probably aren’t even close to being ready for life after 65. The director of the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says you also have to consider whether you’ll be able to work if you want to, where you’ll live, how you’ll stay connected with friends and family, and whom you’ll be able to trust when you need help making financial decisions.

The AgeLab’s work is eclectic—one of Coughlin’s research specialties is the driving ability of older people—tapping fields from engineering to psychology to find insights into ways people can live better as they age.

The group has designed a full-body suit, which enables product designers to experience the physical limitations of older customers, and has worked to develop smart-home technologies to help seniors live independently.

Coughlin spoke with editor-at-large Penelope Wang; their conversation has been edited.

You say that people need to think about not just retirement planning but “longevity planning.” What’s the difference?

The good news is that you are likely to live a lot longer than your parents did. That requires thinking and planning in areas that go beyond hitting a certain number in your retirement account.

Take the idea of working in retirement. People say they want to do it. But do you really believe that the education you got before you turned 22—or 24 if you went to grad school—is going to last till you’re 50, let alone 75?

Can you make a business case that you can continue to be competitive and productive? Planning for longevity means keeping your skills sharp. At a policy level, we need to think about investing in continuing education so that people can remain productive when they’re older.

You also have to take care of your health and well-being. It doesn’t help if you have the skills but can’t get into the office.

How about planning for where you’ll live? Could greater longevity mean people will be putting off the move to Florida?

Moving is the dream. The reality is that by the time you are 50, your home is where you have your marriage, your mortgage, and your memories. Even when the economy was going like gangbusters, less than 9% of the population ever picked up and moved to Arizona, Florida, or some golf community.

For those folks who do want to move, I’d say, choose wisely. A scenic lake in upstate New York might be very nice. But if you don’t drive, where do you go and how do you get around? Is the hospital and emergency response good enough to support you as you age?

What are the issues to think about when it comes to staying in your house or picking a new one?

First, consider this: The No. 1 technology to take care of an aging society around the world has been the oldest adult daughter: a woman between 47 and 57 who is helping to provide care or making the decisions.

The baby boomers will be different. Not only did they have divorces and fewer kids, but the kids are moving elsewhere. Boomers will probably be living on their own. Especially women, who tend to outlive their spouses.

Now imagine you’re 80 years old. Your kid lives three states away. What if you lose some mobility? If you live in a two-floor home, can you move your master bedroom downstairs? Are your kitchen and bathroom accessible?

Those are simple things that can make the difference between being independent and living longer or being forced to move elsewhere at a high cost to you and your family.

Yet most people are slow to retrofit their homes for aging.

This brings up a big issue. No one wants to buy products or services for old people. If I design an “old man’s” car, I can guarantee two things: A young man will never buy it, and neither will an older man. For the same reason, no one designs an old person’s house, and no one wants to buy it on resale.

We have to think both aesthetically and smartly about wider doorways, using levers instead of doorknobs, redoing lighting fixtures — and not just because they’re more tasteful but because you’ll need two or three times more light for reading as you did at age 20.

You can do real design that is youthful and exciting and fun, but also creates a place where you can live for a lifetime.

We’re speaking here at MIT. Is tech a part of the solution?

Technology has to be more engaging than the things we’re doing now. For decades there have been personal emergency-response services, pendants that allow you to notify someone that you’ve had an accident. They’re far cheaper than cable TV. But the adoption rate is low.

The problem is these products radiate “Old man sick! Needs this appliance!” People don’t want to buy them or be seen with them.

So what’s better?

We’re developing systems that monitor your well-being at home, but also bring in connectivity to members of your family.

One of our projects with Nippon Telegraph & Telephone in Japan monitors your health and safety in your house via sensors and radio-frequency tags. But it also allows you to connect to your grandkids or other family members.

If you both have the device, your grandkid will see a ball glowing red if you missed your meds. But you’ll also see a red ball if she hasn’t gone to soccer practice. If you both did what you’re supposed to, the ball stays green.

If not, your grandchild might message you or use video-chat to check in. The idea is to create social networks that help people do the right thing.

That sounds a little Big Brother.

Privacy can be a barrier to well-meaning technologies. It’s a question of the price you want to pay for convenience and connectivity. If you use a credit card, you already know there’s a price, in privacy, you are willing to pay.

Some elderly people develop cognitive impairments that make it harder to manage their finances. Is there any way to plan ahead?

Do the research now to find people who can help you as you age — a trusted network of professionals and the people who love you.

That’s the way to identify early on that there may be a cognitive issue, and make it possible for someone to protect you if you are making egregious errors or someone’s taking advantage. A tight social network is your best defense.

What else should people be preparing for as they age?

Think about the services you’ll need one day and if you know where you’ll get them. Who will change your light bulbs when you can’t? Do you trust them? It’s not just about having money to last a lifetime, but ensuring you have the tools to live better longer.

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