De rigueur for books about retirement planning are an abundance of tables, checklists and resource listings; a chatty "get-off-your-duff" style; anecdotes about usccessful oldsters who are getting the most out of retirement; and a tenaciously upbeat tone, laced with superlatives. Both Hugh Downs and Richard J. Roll's "The Best Years Book" and Joseph Michaels" "Prime of Your Life" sahre these traits. They also treat the same major subjects -- housing, health, fiances and leisure.
Both books are also ground out of the media mills, written by TV personalities whose shows specialize in concerns for older Americans. Downs is host of PBS' award-winning "Over Easy," and Michaels co-hosts WNBC's weekly New York program "The Prime of Your Life."
Of the two books, Downs and Roll's is far superior, better than Michaels' in emphasis, style, clarity, content and comprehensiveness.
A major problem with any book in this genre is that legislative and economic changes can cause facts and assumptions to become outdated in a year's (or month's) time. Take Michaels' questionable assertion about the Social Security system: "The financial experts (who have been pretty accurate up to now) say without equivocation that steps taken in the past few years have solidified the fund, certainly up to about 2025." Recent news attests to the falsity of this statement. Or consider Downs' omission of a recent housing trend designed to put money in the pockets of older people who own their homes free and clear -- the Reverse Annuity Mortgage.
Michaels and Downs-Roll paint unrealistically rosy pictures of retirement. They focus on such Horatio Alger figures as the "talented and energetic" Harry Lapow, who became a professional photographer after being forced to retire from his corporation at age 64, or Oliver Phillips, a prolific inventor, who, after getting involved in local politics, was elected mayor of Wheat Ridge, Colo., at 65.
The sanguine theme goes like this: If you're in good health, have an adequate income from several sources, and possess the get-up-and-go to dabble in crafts, engage in sports or start a business, you've arrived.
But what of the 15 percent of Americans age 65 and older who live below the poverty level? The 10 to 30 percent who are chronically depressed? The roughly 50 percent of workers unprotected by pension plan? Or those who elect early retirement at 62 because of ill health?
Let's take the hypothetical person who retired 10 years ago at 55. Inflation has reduced the purchasing power of his pension by half. He's scared that government benefits will be cut. His investments are meager. He's been rebuffed in efforts to find a part-time job. Listen to Downs-Roll's comforting advice to future retirees: "Once you have provided for your financial security during your retirement and have your investment and insurance in order, you are going to feel infinitely more comfortable and better able to enjoy the life you're secure enough to lead." Cold comfort for many!
Downs' reminiscences of his own retirement transition and second career are fresh, and his financial section, though dull, is inclusive. In addition, Downs and Roll take the spouse into consideration throughout -- a strategic factor in planning -- but skimp on widowhood. Their concluding section is persuasive and gracefully written.
Michaels provides no summing up. He writes as though he readers are single; his advice is directed to a New York audience. On the other hand, he pays attention to widowhood. His discussion of nursing homes (including a checklist) is useful, and his description of a visit he made to a home is movingly told. Further, he gives fuller explantations of some programs for the elderly than Downs-Roll do -- for example, Elderhostels.
Both books list many resources, helpful tools for retirees who don't know where to begin looking. Michaels' book, however, is so top-heavy with resources that as many as half the pages in some chapters are devoted to lists. (Michaels suppleis Canadian resources as well as those for the United States.)
Authors of both volumes embrace a hopeful opinion -- that "there's a new wind blowing" in regard to American attitudes about aging. They are right -- up to a point. Looking toward the future, Downs and Roll wax eloquent: "When all the myths, injustices, and prejudices are retired, age will be seen in its true light: as a triumph over the forces of decay and dissolution, a time for well-earned reward and respect, and a time for choice as to one's satisfactions."
Downs and Roll even go so far as to predict that when this great day comes, there will be "no aging problem." Perhaps. But that day may be a long time coming. In the meantime, though we'd like to believe Robert Browning's words from "Rabbi Ben Ezra" -- "the best is yet to be" -- we must remember to temper our dreams and expectations about retirement with reality.