How Do Couples Resolve Disagreements About Housing After Retirement?

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One of the most difficult decisions an older couple can make is whether to remain in the home they own or to sell the home and move to a retirement community. Aging in place allows the couple to continue relationships with neighbors and local friends, to participate in community activities they enjoy, and to feel secure in a home they own. Moving to a warmer (or cooler) climate may help them age in comfort while eliminating the burden of maintaining a home that was not designed to meet the needs of an older couple.

That decision becomes more difficult when married partners have different ideas about retirement living. One partner might want to move to a new environment. The other might prefer to delay retirement or remain in the home they own. Resolving conflicts about retirement can be challenging.

Disagreements About Retirement 

Older couples sometimes have lifestyle disagreements that extend beyond aging in place or moving to a new community. One spouse might be ready to retire while the other wants to keep working. One spouse might view the assistance of a caregiver as a blow to independence while the other would welcome help.

The New York Times recently explored the issues that older couples face as they transition to a post-retirement lifestyle. A professor of psychiatry told the Times that the decision to move to senior living implicates how couples view themselves. The move requires a tacit admission that “we’re growing old,” an admission that might be difficult for active, able-bodied individuals to make, even if their knees ache as they climb the steps to a second-floor bedroom. People who have a negative impression of aging might feel they are being “put out to pasture” if they move to a senior living community.

One partner might be more psychologically equipped than the other to recognize that moving to a retirement community could improve the couple’s lifestyle. One spouse may have a stronger attachment to a family home or community than the other. Age differences may give spouses different perspectives on their immediate future. Differing health statuses might also cause spouses to have differing perceptions of their needs. Resolving conflicts about a post-retirement future might be a stressful task in even the strongest relationship.

Why Do Conflicts Arise When Couples Approach Retirement?

In any relationship, conflicts are most likely to arise when couples make life-changing decisions. Should a couple have children now or wait until they have a higher income? Should a spouse accept an ideal job offer that will require the family to relocate? Should one spouse stop working to stay home with young children? Decisions that might alter a couple’s lifestyle can be difficult to make when partners do not reach an immediate agreement. That’s no less true as couples grow older.

Since wives tend to be a few years younger than husbands, disagreements are sometimes driven by logistics. An older spouse might have Medicare coverage while the younger spouse might need to keep working to maintain employer-provided health insurance. A husband who wants to retire and begin traveling while he’s in good health might fear that postponing his dreams will make them difficult to achieve. His wife, on the other hand, might be reaching her peak earning capacity in a job she enjoys. 

Traditional gender roles can also influence retirement decisions. A husband who is older than his wife might be reluctant to retire before she does because he will no longer see himself as the breadwinner. Conflicts also arise when a husband retires first and his wife expects him to make a greater contribution to housekeeping, a role that the husband did not envision when he imagined retirement.

More than half of all couples disagree about when each should retire. A third disagree about their preferred retirement destination. How can couples resolve those conflicts?

Resolving Retirement Conflicts

The best strategy is to begin retirement planning well before each partner reaches retirement age. Couples who have a financial advisor should explore the financial consequences of retiring at various ages. Partners should then have honest conversations with each other about key issues:  

  • Should the spouses retire together or at different times? 
  • How does each spouse envision life after retirement?
  • Should each spouse apply for Social Security at age 62, wait to obtain full benefits at age 65, or wait until maximum benefits are available at age 70?
  • If one spouse continues to work, what will be expected of the retired spouse?
  • Should the retired spouse pursue online or part-time work until both spouses are ready to begin a full retirement?
  • Where do the spouses want to live after retirement?
  • Should spouses sell the family home and move to a retirement community?
  • If the spouses want to remain in the family home, should they begin remodeling projects that will make the house friendlier to an older couple?

As is true of other relationship conflicts, compromise is the key to resolving disputes. If a husband wants to retire and travel but his wife wants to keep working, perhaps the spouses can agree that they will take one annual vacation together and the husband will take additional separate vacations until the wife is ready to join him in retirement.

Resolving disagreements about where to live after retirement may also require compromise. If a couple’s adult children live nearby, perhaps the couple can move to a retirement community but return to visit children and see valued friends once or twice a year. No compromise is ever perfect — an agreement that pleases everyone isn’t really a compromise — but disputes about retirement are less likely to harm a relationship when a couple begins to plan their retirement before conflicts arise.

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