Best Places to Grow Old

10 Tips to Help You Find the Best Places to Grow Old

It's high time to sell the big family home and relocate to somewhere a bit more -- peaceful? Affordable? Friendly? Cultured? We all have different needs when it comes to choosing the ideal location to live out our later years. Here, ten things to consider when it comes to planning out your "second life."

1. Access to medical care

One of the biggest mistakes people make when choosing where to live out their later years is neglecting to ensure they have access to complete, modern medical services, says Daniel Brady, chief of community programming for the Miami Jewish Health System. "People have this idealized view of what their retirement will be like," he says. "They picture somewhere picturesque and serene, and before you know it they're out at the end of a country road with the nearest hospital 25 miles away." Then when illness strikes, which it's likely to do during the later years, there's no system in place to manage treatment.

What to look for? Make sure the area you choose has a full-service hospital or medical facility that can provide care for any kind of chronic or acute illness, including chemotherapy or radiation for cancer, cardiac care and rehabilitation, diabetes management, and other types of geriatric services, such as Alzheimer's expertise. If you don't have access to these services, chances are high that you're going to regret your move at some point. "Just as with disaster planning, you want to plan for the worst -- then you can hope for the best," says Brady.

2. Low-cost housing options

Affordable housing is an essential factor in choosing where to live when you're on a fixed income or need to make your retirement savings last. Sell a $300,000 home and move into one costing $150,000, and you've not only cut your costs in half but put an equal amount into savings. Of course, this does tend to mean moving away from popular urban areas on the East and West coasts. But as recent real estate data attests, baby boomers are also finding ways to stay in their beloved urban centers by learning to live in much smaller spaces. In the past few years, many cities have built or are building condo and loft developments aimed at active seniors, and they're proving extremely popular.

When calculating your cost of housing, experts say, look at a number of factors beyond simply the real estate itself. Property taxes, heating costs, and homeowners insurance all contribute to how much you're paying to put a roof over your head.

Culture and affordability

3. At least one great bookstore

Sure, it sounds odd, at first, to focus on such a small detail, but many experts in senior relocation have learned to use this factor as a bellwether. Why? Because great independent bookstores are cultural hubs, offering classes, sponsoring author talks, and functioning as gathering places for like-minded people. The presence of a good bookstore also says a lot about the more subtle qualities of a town's population, especially if you're looking to settle where you're likely to find interesting people. After all, a town has to have at least a reasonable number of cultured, intellectually curious people to sustain the bookstore over time.

4. Overall affordability

The people who study retirement affordability have many different calculations and indexes that they use to evaluate the cost of living in various communities and geographic areas. The cost of housing is a primary factor, of course, but the cost of transportation and other services can be equally or more important. Then there's the fact that some states don't have any sales tax, while other areas tack on as much as 10 percent per purchase.

And the cost of medical and dental services varies much more than most people realize, says the Miami Jewish Health System's Daniel Brady. Surgery in a big-city teaching hospital, for example, could set you back 40 percent more than the same surgery in a community hospital. Towns like Tucson, Arizona; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Des Moines, Iowa rate high on the overall affordability meter.

Jobs and weather

5. A strong job market for second-career job seekers

This is an increasingly important factor for baby boomers looking to settle down for the second half of life but not ready to pull out the recliner just yet. The criteria for this one are pretty straightforward: You want a town with below-average unemployment. Oklahoma City always wins on this count, with the lowest unemployment of any urban area in the U.S.

It also helps if an area specializes in particular industries that tend to fit with your job skills and work history. Capital cities like Madison, Wisconsin, and Sacramento, California, are strong in government jobs, which tend to offer good options for older workers. And cities like Richland, Washington, and Austin, Texas, in which there are new or growing industries and service sectors, are more welcoming to older job seekers as well.

6. Good weather

What constitutes good weather is largely a matter of personal taste; some people want to ski all winter while others can't stand the thought of not seeing fall color. But by and large, when you look at the criteria that experts use to pick the best places for retirement or aging, they tend to be in the sun belt and other areas with mild winters. And that makes sense; tasks like driving do become more difficult as we get older, so throw in driving in the snow and you have a potentially dangerous mix. And many residents of the Northeast and Midwest are all too ready to flee south and stop paying astronomical heating bills.

Still, start by thinking what good weather means to you, personally. Are you willing to put up with 100-plus temperatures in the summer in order to enjoy a mild winter? Many retirees arrive in Arizona or Florida only to discover that they wilt in the summer heat. Are there outdoor activities that are important to you that depend on the weather? Hint: Mosquitoes can scotch a fishing trip, and gardening can be frustrating in the desert.

Houses and services

7. Comfortable houses for aging in place

That dream house you're lusting after? Yes, it has a gorgeous deck with a view and the cutest window seat, but does it also have wide doorways and a one-story floor plan? These are the criteria people all too often overlook, says Daniel Brady of the Miami Jewish Health System. And housing stock tends to vary greatly by community. In one town, all the houses might be more than a hundred years old with multiple floors and narrow hallways, while in another area all the housing stock is post-'50s ranches much more suitable to aging in place.

"When you buy a house at 65, chances are good you're still going to be living in it at 85, so that's what you need to plan for," Brady says. A one-story floor plan with few stairs? Check. Doors wide enough to accommodate a walker or wheelchair? Check. Tubs big enough to put a bath stool in? Check. What about the laundry -- do you have to go down to the basement to do it? These are the kinds of things people don't think about at first but that become hugely important in determining whether they're happy with their choice down the line, Brady says.

8. Availability of services

Make sure any area you're considering has access to the services you want. Need a decent bakery? Check that your new town has one. Similarly, if you regularly visit a chiropractor, massage therapist, or acupuncturist, you won't be happy if you have to give those services up -- or drive 30 miles to access them. If it's important to you to have a beautiful garden, you may want to see if gardeners are plentiful -- and affordable -- in the community you're considering. And if you hope to live out the rest of your life in your own home and don't have a lot of family close by, chances are you'll need some in-home care at some point.

"Although those services are plentiful in most urban and suburban areas, you're going to have a really hard time finding home-care nursing in rural Minnesota," says Brady.

Leisure and family

9. Golf and the arts

We all like to spend our free time in different ways, but by and large most people are in search of a community with rich offerings when it comes to the arts and leisure activities. After all, what's retirement (or semiretirement) for, if not to enjoy all the interests we were too busy for when we were putting in 50-hour weeks?

One of the hottest retirement towns today, Sarasota, Florida, rose to prominence by publicizing its 30-plus golf courses, nationally prominent Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, and a downtown area packed with galleries and art studios, as well as shops and restaurants. Surprising contenders in this category include Traverse City, Michigan; Fairhope, Alabama; and Columbus, Indiana.

10. Proximity to family

If you have adult children, and especially if you're lucky enough to have grandchildren or are hoping for some, proximity to family's going to be one of your major considerations, and rightly so. But it still pays to be creative when thinking about this situation, rather than rushing off to buy a house down the street.

Younger families may need to be in an expensive urban area because of job and school requirements, and you don't have those considerations driving you. One solution: proximity to a major airport. Choose to live within an hour of a major airport, and family can visit you easily and conveniently even if they're a state or two away, opening up many more options.

Take future caregiving needs into consideration as well. "The statistics show that 70 percent of long-term care is provided by family, typically a daughter," says the Miami Jewish Health System's Daniel Brady. So talk openly with your adult children and grandchildren about who might be willing to take on that role. Be sensitive to potential family conflicts, too.

"I tell people: Live close enough to get there easily, but far enough away that if you're mad at each other, you don't have to run into each other at the drugstore," says Brady.