Planning is the secret to a satisfying retirement, says Carol Lifsey, who counsels seniors and their families for Fairfax County.

"It's not that different from any other stage of life," she says. "Make decisions pre-need, that's how you stay in control."

She recommends that people begin educating themselves early about what services will be available to them as seniors. "Your forties is not too soon to start. That will give you time to do the financial planning necessary to make your plans work out."

A good place to begin, she says, is at local aging agencies. Fairfax and Arlington counties and Alexandria each have one. Aging agencies have on hand a wealth of literature on local, state, federal and private programs for seniors.

Staff counselors explain how the programs work and help families get plugged into services as they need them.

The biggest decision facing anyone in retirement is where to live. Most people prefer to stay in their own homes, but Lifsey urges seniors to explore all their options.

"Find out where your emotional base is. That's usually the best place to live at any age," she says.

That may be near lifelong friends rather than with adult children. "If you weren't near them to begin with, maybe there's a good reason for that."

And that may not be out in the country. "Someone who enjoys the diversity of the city may not be happy away from it," Lifsey says.

Lifsey suggests making many visits to a retirement community before deciding to move into one. "You can't just go for two hours and make a decision about the rest of your life. Talk to residents alone."

The second-biggest decision is how to use the time that retirement offers. "Look inward and find what you enjoy most," she says. "But be realistic. If you couldn't sing when you were 20, you're probably not going to become an opera star in your retirement."

An important part of the planning, she says, is to separate fear from need. "People usually need less than they fear. Fear overwhelms judgment and makes good decision-making nearly impossible."

A little counseling is sometimes all that is necessary to refocus on the real problems, she says.

Lifsey urges seniors to involve other family members in discussions about their preferences and their decisions. "You're a whole lot more likely to get the kind of help from them you need and want."

"Positive Aging" is the subject of a five-session discussion group that starts tonight at the Falls Church Community Center. For more information, call the Fairfax County Senior Enrichment Program at 506-2200.