A while back I read the results of a 2010 poll by the Allianz Life Insurance Co. of North America and one of their questions really ‘stuck in my craw’.  The question asked of 3,257 Americans aged 44 to 75 was:

            “Which do you fear the most:

            outliving your money in retirement or death?”

Let’s face it – most of us avoid thinking about death.  Of course, the younger a person is, the less experience they are likely to have had with family or peers dying.  So it is hardly surprising that 77% of the youngest age group polled indicated they were more afraid of outliving their money than they were of death.  The results that also included the older respondents indicated that 61% were afraid of outliving their money.  This is an ‘age effect’.  With age, there is an increased understanding of death, acknowledgement of our own mortality, and therefore increasing levels of fear.  But let’s face it – this question, comparing money and death is undignifying.  It trivializes death by ranking it next to a material item.

The Allianz poll gets us to think about death as a binary experience.  Either we are alive, or we are dead.  Once dead, there is little to fear.  However, while alive, money affects our quality of life and therefore the fear that running out of money is real.  The fallacy in this poll is that for the majority, death is a process of dying accompanied by a wide range of emotions and challenges.  The fear isn’t about being dead – it is about dying.  An article I read recently drove home this point.

Even with the best of preparations, some of us will be placed in a position of making a life-and-death decision for someone else.  A husband explained the challenges he faced in trying to make the right decision on behalf of his wife who was in the later stages of Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS).  This couple completed all the necessary legal documents for financial and health-related needs.  Even so, this has not provided enough preparation for the reality of the situation.  He writes:

This is not a decision I thought I would ever face – to hold someone’s life almost in my hands. The dilemma now is there is no way for her to let us know if she does want to change her mind. As her medical proxy/partner I can only do, in clear conscience, what she last communicated to me that she wanted done for herself.

The financial industry needs to hold itself to a higher standard rather than seek media headlines with shocking poll questions.  It has an opportunity to help the aging population prepare to face end-of-life situations in a way that honours the wishes of the dying and protects their loved ones.

*photo from Hans via Pixabay