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Retirement Plagued by Bad Health, Money Woes

Poll finds the golden years tarnished for some

En español | The image of carefree cruising in the Bahamas or playing golf until sundown turns out to be a sham for many retired Americans, a new poll finds.

One in four feels that life is worse now than before they stopped working, according to the poll released Sept. 27 by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health.

See also: Tapping your 401(k) early with no penalty?

They blame bad health (39 percent), financial shortfalls (35 percent) and inability to travel (34 percent).

The poll of 1,254 adults over age 50 — 755 retirees and 409 workers — sharply illustrates the differences between what pre-retirees think their new life will be and what retirees say is the reality.

"Many people who have already retired say their health is worse, and they worry about costs of medical treatment and long-term care," Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said in a statement.

"Insights from the poll can help policy makers and others think about how to meet the needs of aging Americans. There are changes we can make to our health care system, finances, and communities that might help ensure that our retirement years will be as fulfilling as we hope."

To be sure, not all retirees feels bamboozled. In fact, a majority say that life in retirement is the same (44 percent) or better (29 percent) than it was during the five years before they stopped working.

Less stress, more family, better diet

Many say they have less stress and more time to devote to favorite activities. They also say their relationships with loved ones are better and their diet has improved.

But people on the doorstep of retirement may be underestimating the challenges ahead, said Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health.

"When you compare what people think retirement will be like with what retirees say it actually is like, there are big differences," he said. "Pre-retirees may underestimate the degree to which their health and finances may be worse in retirement."

Some say 'never retire'

Other poll findings:

  • About 50 percent of pre-retirees say they plan to retire at age 65 or older, while 15 percent said they expect never to fully retire.

  • 27 percent of pre-retirees and 35 percent of retirees say they won't or don't have the income they need to live comfortably in retirement.

  • 29 percent of pre-retirees and 32 percent of retirees expect to live into their 90s or beyond.

  • 58 percent of pre-retirees and 53 percent of retirees say their health in retirement is or will be better than that of people in their parents' generation.

  • 27 percent of pre-retirees expect to have trouble paying medical bills.

  • A whopping 83 percent of pre-retirees and 76 percent of retirees have watched their weight to try to improve their health. Pre-retirees are also more likely than retirees to say they have changed their diet and increased physical activity, the poll found.

  • Virtually all members of both groups cited Medicare as important to their retirements. The groups differed on their views of the future of Medicare, but neither group wants an overhaul of the program.

Sixty-two percent of pre-retirees say they're not very or not at all confident that Medicare will provide benefits of equal value to current benefits through the end of their retirements.

If Medicare eligibility were pushed up to age 67 from the current 65, one in three in both demographics says that waiting two more years would be a major problem for them and their family.

Also of interest: What does retirement mean to you? >>

Carole Fleck is a senior editor at the AARP Bulletin.

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