Aging and The Peter Pan Syndrome

The Peter Pan Syndrome         

This is often used to describe adolescents who refuse to grow up and take on adult responsibilities. I think the same analogy can be used for aging seniors who refuse to believe they will ever grow “old”. If you want to stay in your home as you are aging, be sure to avoid the Peter Pan Syndrome.

The Peter Pan Fantasy

Picture of Peter Pan Character
I will never grow OLD! Peter Pan

“I will be healthy into old age and then die suddenly on the golf course or in my sleep”.

Well, I hate to break it to you but this is just not how life usually plays out.  In fact, this scenario is about as common as being killed by a lightning strike, even if you are on the golf course, in a thunderstorm holding your favorite club in the air.

Signs that you or your aging loved one may have Peter Pan Syndrome.

  1. An Unwillingness to Face Reality:  If you wait until you feel like working on your aging plan, you won’t ever feel like it. You have to “Just Do It’ as they say.
  2. Dabbling: Being unwilling to focus on the details of your situation, dig in, and get it done! This may mean you need to undertake some preventative measures now. You may need to move to a smaller place, you may need to install grab bars or even a special tub to help you prevent injury. You may need to find a doctor who will work with you to minimize medications that can lead to falls.
  3. Networking Aversion: Not taking the time to make connections and build relationships with those who can make you successful at aging in place. Maybe it is time to simplify your medical regimen. Maybe you need a doctor who knows your goals, who is easily accessible by phone and who will come to your home if you need it. Find a doctor who specializes in keeping older people independent instead of one focused only on extending your life. Network with your loved ones and tell them about your plan for what to do when you need more help in the home.
  4. Betting on longshot dreams: clinging to your dream of dying in your sleep while you are still able- bodied and brilliant. I think many people like to think that whatever they need will be provided by Medicare or Long-Term-Care Insurance. If you don’t know exactly what this coverage will or will not pay for then this may be another longshot dream.
  5. Numbing: Some in our culture use alcohol or drugs to “numb out” and avoid facing problems head on. Equally effective is keeping yourself too busy to think about how you will face old age gracefully. Who has time to plan for illness and dependency when you need to make a dish to pass at bridge club?
  6. Not Thoroughly Investigating All Available Resources: My personal philosophy for approaching important life events (think wedding, divorce…I have had notebooks for both) is to create a notebook and fill it with everything I need to get things done.  Get actual names and numbers of real people who you can recruit or hire to help at home when you need it. Assign each one specific tasks such as finances or food. Go beyond just knowing that there is something called “home health” and get a list of local providers and price lists. Make some sample budgets for what different levels of in-home care might cost you. Set aside the funds and tell your family that this money is designated for that specific purpose. People do this with funeral planning all the time….try it with old age planning too!.
  7. Blaming “The System” or “The Government” for Your Situation: Take control of your life! Those of you who live into your 70s, 80s and greater are generally very self-reliant, capable and resilient people who have lived through many adversities. Don’t give up on yourself now!  

This list of attributes was adapted from this article on Peter Pan Syndrome in young people:

The Peter Pan Experience 

For most, the Peter Pan approach looks like this. You save your money carefully, living frugally and pretending you won’t ever get old and frail. Then, the crisis happens. This may be a fall and fracture, a heart attack or a stroke. You end up in the hospital with no plan for how to be cared for at home. The hospital needs to get you discharged ASAP and immediately starts looking for a nursing home.

Do you want to have a say?

If you are “lucky” you will stay in the hospital the required amount of time (3 days) for Medicare to cover part of your initial nursing home stay. After a few weeks in the nursing home, with no plan for how to be cared for or even get up the 3 steps to your front door, your Medicare benefit ends or for various other reasons you begin what is referred to as “custodial care”.  This is when your room and board is no longer covered by Medicare and you will then start the spend down of your savings.  At an average cost of $230 per day, this doesn’t take long for most of us. Once you have less than $2000 in assets, you will then qualify for Medicaid to pay your nursing home room and board. Not really something to celebrate.

How much would you pay to stay at home as you are aging and avoid the nursing home?

Doesn’t it make more sense to spend the money ahead of time in order to stay out of the nursing home in the first place? Even if this means you spend every penny to stay at home and then still have to go into long term care, you and your heirs won’t be any worse off at the end of the day.  And, just maybe, your planning will allow you to stay at home through end of life with most of your nest egg intact.   I so admire the people I work with who have bravely planned ahead. These folks have decided to spend some money to make the necessary home modifications or have downsized and moved to a place that has been adapted for an aging person.  They also spend their money to hire in home caregivers including a personal physician who makes house calls and helps them stay out of the hospital. They spend money and sometimes this helps them save money in the end.

The Takeaway

If any of these Peter Pan Syndrome Behaviors apply to you, make this your wake-up call. Be a grown-up by investing some of your savings in a plan to for aging at home. Take charge of your future rather than just letting it happen to you.