Why don't people, especially seniors, plan to protect themselves and their families? The answer, which I learned at a program sponsored by the Boston Estate Planning Council about findings from the MIT Age Lab, can in part be explained by the acronym PRUNE. PRUNE stands for the types of information that have emotional impact on us, those that are:
While the presentation by a speaker from the Hartford Funds, which is collaborating with the MIT Age Lab, was aimed at financial planners, its message is equally relevant to estate planners. People act on information or situations that hit one or more of these triggers. Other researchers at MIT recently reported that fake news gets retweeted much more often than real news. The reason is that it's surprising or "novel." Real news involves the same old facts that we already know.
PRUNE explains why most people put off estate and financial planning. Unless there's an occurrence in one's life that makes planning feel proximate, relevant, urgent, novel, or emotional, we're likely to put it off in favor of more urgent demands. This explains why more people are motivated to come see us when a spouse or parent needs care, than for planning ahead—all of the sudden, they are in a situation that hits a number of these triggers.
The Three Big Aging Well Questions
Most people's eyes will glaze over when faced with financial planners talking about rates of return or estate planners talking about wills and trusts. The speaker suggested that professional advisors would do a better job connecting with their clients if they talked with them about how they want to live in their later years. He quoted the director of the MIT Age Lab, Joseph F. Coughlin, who recommends posing three questions to older clients:
- Who will change my light bulbs?
- How will I get an ice cream cone?
- Who will you have lunch with?
These questions will get clients to begin thinking about their wishes and needs as they get older. If they or their spouse can no longer safely change the light bulbs, who will? Do they want to live alone, or with other people? Near their family and friends or in a warmer climate? How will they get around to activities they enjoy when driving is no longer an option?
If clients can develop at least preliminary answers to these questions, that can help guide their financial and estate planning. Neither financial or estate planners can focus solely on their tools of the trade; they have to do the planning in the context of their clients' wishes for their lives. Otherwise, the planning will have no meaning.
And, of course, any planning will have to be flexible as we and the world around us change. As the wise philosopher Yogi Berra said:
"The future ain't what it used to be."