STEVE INSKEEP, host: Many Americans are finding retirement to be harder than they imagined. That's a finding of a new poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health. NPR's Jennifer Ludden begins a series of reports on life in retirement.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Americans pride themselves on being optimistic. But Robert Blendon of the Harvard School of Public Health says that may not be such a good thing when it comes to planning for retirement.

ROBERT BLENDON: People thinking about retirement I don't think envision any of the potential problems that they could face. But you have to sort of face up to them, because otherwise it's very hard just when events start happening to respond to them.

LUDDEN: The main problems: money and health. A third of retirees say their finances are worse than before retirement; even more report deteriorating health. You might ask, aren't these things predictable? Well, the survey polled pre-retirees, aged 50 and above, and finds they greatly underestimate the chances of either problem.

WANDA GEORGE: I didn't give it a lot of thought, to be very honest with you.

LUDDEN: Wanda George took part in the poll. She's 71, lives in Las Vegas, and has been retired since a car accident forced her to go on disability at age 59. After raising four kids, George managed a beauty salon and did have a 401(k). She says it seemed to be doing pretty well. But after she stopped working, she had to tap into that money to pay for health insurance. She says her late husband didn't put much away for retirement, so she's now getting by only on Social Security.

GEORGE: I had a really nice home. I couldn't afford that. Even going out to eat, it's no longer the nicer places. You go to the cheaper places. Clothing, when you buy it, you have to wait for sales, which is OK, but you just do not have much of a choice.

LUDDEN: Joe Hanyok of Chardon, Ohio did plan well for retirement - a couple 401(k)s, a pension, he owned a home. He felt in good shape. Of course the bad economy's been tough.

JOE HANYOK: I think my 401(k)s are down 20, 25 percent.

LUDDEN: Still, Hanyok's health is good, but his mother's isn't. So Hanyok, at 63, cares for her full-time. As for lifestyle, he sounds like many others in the poll.

HANYOK: Oh, I expected when I retired that I would be able to travel and visit friends. I have friends in St. Louis, I have friends in California, I have some friends down in Florida, and travel is completely out of the picture now. I just can't afford to get away.

LUDDEN: Hanyok says his mom would need expensive round-the-clock care in his absence, something his budget, decent though it is, just doesn't allow. Although we think of 65 as the traditional retirement age, by far most retirees today stopped working before then. But the poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health, suggests a generational shift under way. Harvard's Robert Blendon says pollsters asked people to think back to their 40s and see if they'd delayed the age they expected to retire. Not many of today's retirees had.

BLENDON: But of those who hadn't retired, essentially 39 percent, or four in 10, have moved the age forward that they're going to retire. Over half of them say the lead reason is: I can't afford to retire.

LUDDEN: And some say they don't envision ever being able to stop working. Blendon says there's an important message here, especially for younger people.

BLENDON: If you anticipate it, you can do things to try to improve your level of health over time, try to make your financial situation somewhat better in retirement, if you realize that you are at risk for some things actually going worse.

LUDDEN: Heeding that warning could add a silver lining to feeling pessimistic about the future. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: And you can listen for more Life in Retirement later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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