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How to Build a Support System in Retirement

Folks on a hike enjoying a support system in retirement in real time

A support system isn’t a “nice to have” retirement benefit—it’s a must-have. But understanding you need a support system in retirement and knowing how to build one and what it should look like are two different issues. Coming up with the right system for you may be a combination of creativity and practicality to build the support base and systems you need to sustain you as you age.

My mother and her neighbor of more than 55 years, both widows, had an ingenious approach to monitoring each other’s safety and wellness as they grew older. At the end of each day, each pulled down the shade in a window facing the other’s house. If the shade wasn’t raised in the morning, the neighbor knew there was a problem.

Mom and Harriet were part of each other’s retirement support system. Here’s how to build your own.

When You Might Need Help

A wide range of predictable situations can trigger a need for help, especially if you’re one of the 27% of Americans ages 60 and older who live alone. “As you age, everything gets a bit harder. Maintaining your house and your health becomes more than just a chore. You end up needing a network of people to help you with a range of issues, from the mundane to emergencies,” says Jay Zigmont, founder of Childfree Wealth

Consider what might happen in any of these or similar situations, especially if you live alone:

  • You have an outpatient procedure and need someone to drive you back and forth.
  • You’ve fallen, can’t get up, and can’t reach your phone.
  • Joint or other pain makes it hard to perform routine home maintenance chores.
  • Your doctor announces you can’t drive, either temporarily or permanently.
  • You aren’t paying bills on time, so you’re incurring late fees.
  • You used to count on friends for help now and then, and vice-versa. Now they’re dealing with the same limitations you are.
  • You’ve messed up your medications more than once.
  • You’ve had a knee or hip replacement that limits mobility while you heal. 
  • You pass out.
  • You’re lonely, and you don’t like it.

This is where a support system comes in handy.

Retirement Support System Strategies

It’s important to build your retirement support system before you need it. For many, the process starts with financial planning. The right financial strategies can make it possible to pay for home care or fund long-term care insurance.

Consider moving close to the services you’ll need, too. Single and child-free, 70-year-old Stacy Harris realized long ago that “If you live long enough, either you surrender your car keys, or someone will take them away.” She now lives within walking distance of nearly everything she needs: a supermarket, drug store, hospital, bank, and so on. She’s also on the bus line, so she can get to what isn’t nearby when she no longer drives.

Harris has also hired a home care agency to take her to and from an outpatient procedure. They will stay with her at home overnight afterward, as required. “I’m no longer comfortable imposing on friends to take what amounts to a day off from work to meet a hospital-imposed directive,” she adds.

Moving to a 55+ community living setting is another option. When making that decision, ask about support services, advises Kyle Walton, digital managing editor of MedicareInsurance.com. “Look past the golf courses and focus on things like grocery delivery, senior centers, and transportation assistance,” he says. These communities can also help reduce the risk of isolation that often separates retirees from emotional and more tangible support.

Carol Marak, author of “SOLO AND SMART: The Roadmap for a Supportive and Secure Future” and founder of a popular Facebook group for solo agers, recommends creating an informal support system simply by continuing to connect with others. “Get out of the house and join clubs, get to know your neighbors, make new friends, go places where like-minded people are, and hang out with people who enjoy doing the same things you do. The main thing is you don’t want to isolate and be alone all the time,” she says.

Incorporate Technology

Although not a substitute for a human network, many technological solutions can enhance your support system, too.

Video tools like Zoom, FaceTime, and Facebook Messenger, which many people use to stay connected with family and friends, can also serve as a connection point for medical resources and telemedicine appointments when meeting in person is challenging or unrealistic.

Monthly-fee-based medical or life alert systems that connect people with help after falling or in other emergencies can be literal life savers.

Beyond medical needs, the world of service apps is full of opportunities to make your life easier and get the support you need with a touch of a button. Taking advantage of delivery services for food and prescriptions and using transportation apps like Lyft and Uber is an easy way to get what you need without leaving home or getting where you need to go.

There are also apps designed to support and serve various helpful functions, from daily check-ins to organizing help when needed. A few worth exploring are:

  • EyeOn. This daily check-in service can also provide medical appointments and pill schedule reminders. The system alerts emergency contacts if you don’t respond to a check-in text message.
  • Snug Safety. Another daily check-in service.
  • Lotsa Helping Hands. This service helps coordinate caregiving among family and friends and is especially helpful after surgery.

Start building your support system now, even if you don’t need it yet. “Support systems are key to staying on track as we get older. People we know and trust can assist us either personally or by helping us find the professional care and assistance we may need,” says Walton.

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